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SIDIC Periodical XVIII - 1985/3
Apocalyptic (Pages 04 - 09)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Jewish Apocalyptic
Paolo Sacchi


Over the last ten years research into Jewish apocalyptic has taken on a new lease of life and, following the publication of a Qumran fragment, new basic premises have been established. The fragment in question is 4QEna, published by Milik in 1976. The text of this fragment was written by a scribe living in the first half of the second century BCE. It has proved beyond all shadow of doubt that the dating traditionally accepted by modern research was mistaken. The work did not, as generally thought, date from the first century BCE, using material going back about a hundred years; it was even older! One can no longer say that Jewish apocalyptic is a literary genre which appeared at the beginning of the second century BCE; rather one must admit that it has a far longer history, one of about five hundred years, stretching from at least 400 BCE until the opening years of the second century CE.

History of Apocalyptic
As a result of this new dating, those studies which attempted to establish the essential elements of apocalyptic by simultaneous research into all extant apocalypses, have now been discredited. Like everything else in this world, apocalyptic has its own history and its own pattern of development. Its composition cannot be interpreted in the light of the great political crises of the second century BCE, which saw the betrayal of the law by the high priest Menelaus and the great national revolt of the Maccabees; it goes back even further and its history is coterminous with that of the second temple. Apocalyptic must be seen as an important alternative trend of thought to the Judaism of Jerusalem, differing from it in several basic ways and in every instance having its own complex development, even when not completely independent. Ideas drawn from apocalyptic passed into both official Judaism and Essenism and ideas deriving from them were tentatively absorbed into apocalyptic, especially in the later stages when it was structured in a more global
and coherent way. The continuity of apocalyptic thought was guaranteed by the existence of an editor living towards the end of the first century BCE who brought together into a single volume the so-called Book of Enoch the Ethiopian; this comprised five books from different periods which he recognized as belonging to the same religious tradition in spite of strong theological differences between one book and another. The continuity existing between the first century BCE and the first century CE can be seen in the continuing presence of the same themes.

Stages in the Development of Apocalyptic
The different thought-patterns existing in the various apocalyptic works have cast doubt on whether an apocalyptic trend of thought ever really existed. The criterion used by scholars to decide whether a work belongs at least to the apocalyptic genre is in fact based on questions of form: a work is deemed to belong to the apocalyptic genre if it has the literary form of an apocalypse. The word apocalypse is the modern version of a Greek word which means revelation and therefore those writings are considered apocalyptic which contain revelations about God, angels and demons and the last judgment. The author guarantees them as originating in visions experienced by some personage coming from the most ancient Jewish tradition! Enoch (the most frequent), Moses and, from more recent times, Baruch
and Ezra. Moreover, the apocalyptic style is recognizable by its prolific use of symbols, whether these be numbers or are taken from the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
We must avoid confusing the formal level and the level of ideas. A book such as Daniel and the Apocalypse of John are apocalyptic on the formal level and are in a certain sense under the influence of, or at least fascinated by, the apocalyptic trend of thought, but are clearly distinct from it.

Four Apocalyptic Periods
Four basic periods can be identified in apocalyptic:

First apocalyptic: this came to an end in 200 BCE. It comprises works such as the Book of Watchers (Enoch 1-37) and the Book of Astronomy (Enoch 72-82).

Second Apocalyptic: Second century BCE. The Book of Dreams (Enoch 83-90) (contemporary to Daniel).

Third apocalyptic: First century CE. Epistle of Enoch (Enoch 91-105); the Book of Parables (Enoch 38-71); Ascension of Moses.

Fourth apocalyptic: First century CE and beginning of second: Apocalypse of Zephaniah; the Syriac apocalypse of Baruch; Fourth Book of Ezra.

First Period
The Book of Watchers is the oldest apocalyptic work still extant. It seems to have been developed from a still older Book of Noah. Its content can be identified, but one cannot tell what theological ideas went into it because the author of the Book of Watchers, taking it as a basis for his own work, has changed it in order to make it a vehicle for his own particular ideas.

Five strata can be identified in the Book of Watchers: the oldest could date back to the fifth century BCE and in no way could it be later than the fourth. The author's interest is centered on the problem of the origin of evil, experienced as a reality which involves the human race, but which is metaphysically independent. Sin, with all its unhappy consequences, derives from a "contamination" or vitiation of nature in respect to both human beings and material things (10:7; 12:4; 15:3; 19:1). Some angels, smitten with love for women, decided to come down to earth and take wives for themselves (6:7). Thus they damaged the order of nature as it has been ordained by God, which gave powers of generation only to men because they were mortal (15:4). The fall of the angels took place at the time of Jared, father of Enoch.

According to some unrelated texts present in this book, the cause of evil is to be found above all in the fact that the fallen angels taught women those sciences which were celestial secrets, not to be revealed to the human race (8-9:6). This idea is not followed up, however; thus astronomy, which is condemned openly in this book, will become the basis of the Book of Astronomy and will be looked upon as the foundation of all sound knowledge.

Giants were born of the union between angels and women, monstrous beings who filled the earth with sorrow. Following the supplications of humanity and the intercession of those angels faithful to God, the latter thrust the rebel angels down to hell and killed the giants. But these measures were not enough, because the souls of the giants continued to roam freely on the earth (16:1) in the form of evil spirits, inciting humankind to evil deeds and causing damage of every kind.

This account of the fall of the angels was even used by the author of Genesis 6:1-4 in a brief and demythologized summary; this shows he was familiar with the context of the myth but did not agree with its interpretation, for the giants were not evil spirits but simply the famous men of old.

Some maintain that the Book of Watchers is a longer version of the Genesis story. But the demythologized and very abbreviated form of the latter (without the text of the Book of Watchers I do not think we would understand the tiny passage in Genesis) makes it obviously of later date. Naturally the Genesis text can no longer be attributed to J, but rather to a post-exilic editor.

In the vision of things expressed in the Book of Watchers, man appears at one and the same time as cause and victim of sin, possibly more victim than cause. In Enoch 10:8 it says: all sin (or each sin) must be attributed to Asael (the leader of the fallen angels who later will be called the devil).

In later strata of the Book of Watchers the angelic sin will be duplicated and the original one pushed further back in time. If in fact the contamination of nature and therefore the thrust of the human race towards evil is a product of the time of Jared, the sin of Cain is not explained (22:7). If then one speaks of the sin of other angels (those of the seven planets which revolve around the earth) these, in the very moment of creation (fourth day at the beginning of time), carried their planets outside the orbit of God's will, thus damaging creation from the beginning. Adam was thus put into a universe which was already contaminated, but this theme is not touched upon in the Book of Watchers.

Another new element in this book is its concept of the immortality of the soul. The soul of the dead person no longer descends without being judged into the biblical Sheol, where good and bad alike live a life which is a non-life, far from the light of the sun and the radiance of God. The souls of the dead gather in a valley to the extreme west of the earth, where good and bad are clearly separated, where the good are sheltered from the attacks of the Evil One and whence they will come forth at the time of the last judgment which will ratify for all eternity the state of both the blessed and the damned (22).

Man lives in a world of time and of becoming, but already in this life his soul is in a different dimension. Thus his read world is not this world, but the one in which his soul will continue to live. The world of history is dominated by evil and moves towards its final destiny of destruction, which will come about when God wills it, but the just are already saved in the hands of God, waiting to reach the happy valley in the west where there will be no more suffering or sin.

In the final stratum of the work there is a radical change, probably due to the influence of official Judaism. The better world is no longer far away in the west, open to the souls of the just, but is placed at the end of history and destined for those just who are there in that moment of time. Lose sight of the immortality of the soul and history takes on a fundamental importance. God must save humanity in this world and not in the spiritual dimension (25:6).

Second Period
The argument is taken up again in the Book of Dreams, about 163 BCE; this presents itself as a story of the human race from the beginning down to the author's own lifetime. Future history is written by Enoch, who sees it in a dream: thus it appears to be in a certain sense predetermined. In other books history is shown as written by God for all eternity on heavenly tablets, those mysterious writings which contain the destiny of the human race.

The thought underlying the Book of Dreams is more systematic than that of the Book of Watchers. There is a leading rebel angel (he could be called the Devil), who is the true and proper principle of evil. He is a creature who took advantage of his liberty to rebel against God and to encourage other angels and human beings to do the same.

It is clear that the flood was insufficient to eliminate evil from the earth because by now it was deeply embedded in human nature. The three sons of Noah are not the same; Shem is good, but Japheth is violent and Ham is profoundly evil (89:9). Thus evil survived the flood and tended in general always to increase; a first climax was reached when God condemned the Jews to exile in Babylon. After the exile the situation worsened again, because the seventy angels who were entrusted to watch over and govern Israel transgressed, bringing Israel to ever greater ruin, destined to culminate in a second destruction of the temple and its rebuilding by the very hand of God (90:28-29). After this time a messiah will appear (90:37) who will be greater than men but less than the angels: he will govern the whole world and make all men like himself, and therefore better.

There is no further question of the immortality of the soul. The world which is blessed and free from evil will appear at the end of time through the mediation of the messiah. In the contemporary Book of Daniel (12:1) the concept of resurrection appears; whether this exists is discussed even in the Book of Dreams (90:33). On the one hand the world to come is free from evil and destined for everyone; on the other; it is only for the final generation.

Third Period
The third apocalyptic period bears witness to a serious internal crisis. On one hand apocalyptic is seen to reflect on the problem of human responsibility and to take a decisive stand in favor of this contradiction of what derives from early apocalyptic. The Epistle of Enoch is peremptory in tone. At least in the form in which it has come down to us, it no longer speaks of fallen angels, but stresses the responsibility of the human race for sin (98:4);

As a mountain cannot become a servant, not will it ever do so... so sin was not sent upon earth. But the human race created it themselves and those who have acted thus are destined to be accursed.

Only in the fourth apocalyptic period will there be an attempt to reconcile the responsibility of mankind for sin and the general contamination of nature.

In particular, the third apocalyptic period develops the theme of mediation. Superhuman figures appear between God and man to whom apocalyptic thought gives functions which were formerly seen as the prerogative of God. The idea that it should be God himself who, at the Great Judgment condemns sinners, seems to be repugnant to the apocalyptic writers of the first century BCE. It seems almost as if the concept of divine Judgment becomes more and more an obsession and the Judgment seen increasingly as terrible and inexorable; on the other hand the function of Judge as one who condemns is taken away from God and given to others. In the Epistle of Enoch it will be the watchers themselves (91:15) who exercise judgment over men and, according to the author, the angels never sin. It is in the Book of Parables, however, that this theme is most highly developed. Its author abandons the broad outlines of human history as predetermined by God which characterize the Book of Dreams and the Epistle of Enoch, in order to return to a vision of things closer to that of early apocalyptic. Predestination no longer has its place in history but only in the fate of the individual:

As God has created a world in which one half is darkness and one half is light, in the same way the spirits of men are divided (41:8).

The influence of the Essene doctrine of two spirits seems apparent here (cf. Rule of the Community 3:15-19).

The attention of the author is drawn to the heavenly world, location of the paradise in which is to be found, if not God (who is perhaps still higher), then at least angels and the souls of the just. Evil came about by the sin of the angels and, guided by the Book of Dreams, the author distinguishes the angel who committed the first sin (the devil) from the fallen angels (chs. 54, 55, 59); the Judgment seems only to look at the latter and never at the former (61:8). Even this idea probably owes its existence to Essene influence, in which the Devil is created as such by God and therefore cannotbe judged for what he does. But, taken all in all, it is a new concept of evil which appears in the Book of Parables. It is linked to an idea which appeared in the Book of Watchers but was not taken up again; the cause of evil is not a contamination of nature but rather the disclosure of heavenly secrets, those concerning science and the arts and above all the construction of arms (64:1-2).

The gaze of the author is above all directed towards the present and he identifies the wicked as all those who wield some sort of power in the world. Science has given to men a sense of power, of the ability to crush other beings. The powerful of this world are the only sinners and their sin, as is said repeatedly, is above all else a sin of pride (48:8-10).

The just man is the reverse of the sinner. As the sinner is the strong man who has the power to oppress others, so the just man is the one without the strength to defend himself. Therefore the fact that he is found in one place rather than another does not seem to depend on anything other than God's choice. It is not for nothing that the just man is generally called the chosen one.

But the climax and most characteristic element in the thought of the Book of Parables is the figure of an eschatological savior called the Son of Man, obviously after the literal translation of the vision in Daniel 7. He has the power to reveal in what consists the true justice of God, which evidently does not coincide with what has already been revealed, that is to say, with the law (48:1-3). He will cast down kings from their thrones, rub the faces of the powerful in the dust, fill them with shame and make darkness their seat (46:4-6).

The Son of Man was created before the stars (48:3); he will be the light of the people and the hope of all who suffer. This Son of Man is also called Messiah (48:10) and thus the messianic function is welded on to that of the Son of Man. There will be a final and implacable day of judgment for evildoers and the world to come will be inaugurated, a world in which the Lord of spirits will live above men and these will live, eat, sleep and rise with this Son of the Mother of the Living (62:14).

This figure of the Son of Man expresses the demands already existing in apocalyptic and builds them into a fairly coherent system. Already in the Book of Jubilees, a book written in the second century BCE in a form very dose to Essenism and to apocalyptic, God had foreseen that he himself would dwell on earth with men (1:26). Now, in the Book of Parables, God remains in heaven, but his representative will be seen on earth and will dwell for ever among men. On the other hand, the judgment of destruction and condemnation will not be carried out directly by God, as already foreseen in the earlier periods of Apocalyptic, but by this representative of his. Mercy is the fundamental attribute of God (50:4); the violent realization of justice is the duty of his Messiah.

Fourth Period
If the third period of apocalyptic shows traces of Essene doctrine, the fourth is explicable mainly in the light of problems arising from Christian and Pharisaic ideologies, the latter being definitively established in Israel around the time of the destruction of the Temple. Yohanan ben Zakkai reaffirmed the centrality of the law in the life of Israel, leaving aside all speculation unconnected with it. To the Jews shattered by the disaster of 70, he did not say: Better days will come soon, or: there will be a savior who will liberate us from sin and its consequences, He said rather: Happy are you, 0 Israel! When you obey the will of God, then no nation or race can rule over you! (Mekhilta de Rabbi Israel, quoted in J. Neusner: From Politics to Piety, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall 1973, p. 151). It is by this renewal in the law that the problem of impurity as an evil power can be overcome; as we have seen, this idea is fundamental to many apocalyptic works. A corpse does not contaminate nor the waters of a red cow purify unless God has willed it this way (Num Rabba 19:4). Nevertheless, alongside the Pharisaic motif which defends man's responsibility or free choice, there are also problems to be found in Christian thought and preaching.

In the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, dating from towards the end of the first century, there is an attempt to clarify conceptually the relationship between the idea of predestination as found in certain apocalypses and the demands of human freedom and responsibility.

Predestination is limited to the plane of history in general, which unfolds according to a divine plan and is divided into twelve periods. The author's concept of history is expressed in chapter 53 through the vision of light and dark waters; the dark element is always stronger than the light and, according to the usual line of apocalyptic thought, will continue to increase in strength until the Messiah appears; he has superhuman traits like the Son of Man in the Book of Parables and in the New Testament. This Messiah appears either at the beginning or at the end of history, but shares neither in creation, unlike that of John, nor in the Last Judgment, unlike that of the Book of Parables. The idea of mediation, which was important for the third apocalyptic period as well as for Christianity, thus disappears. The superhuman Messiah limits himself to condemning to death on Mount Zion the last earthly king, prior to the resurrection and the last judgment (chapter 3: the text is obscure).

With regard to sin, the author knows the myth of the sin of the angels with women (56:10-13) but does not consider it well-founded and consequently is unaware of its implications. He also knows of the sin of Adam (cf. Paul), but stresses that Adam was simply a bad model for those who would come after him (18:2). The angels themselves sin by following the example of Adam (56:10-11). The relationship between man and angel is reversed; sin began with man and not with the angel and it always stressed that the angels sinned because they were free (56:11): man and angel are both free.

The last of the great Jewish apocalypses is that of the Fourth Book of Ezra which, according to most recent research, belongs to the beginning of the second century rather than to the end of the first. It is the most complex of all the apocalyptic works and its comprehensibility is obscured by the strong emotion displayed by the author, emotion which detracts from the clarity of the argument even though it renders it impassioned.

The work is shot through with a profound pessimism about the fate of humanity. Rather like Job, the author complains to God about his injustice towards mankind in general and the Jews in particular. He does not understand why disaster has overtaken Jerusalem, no more does he understand why the whole human race should be enveloped in the catastrophe of sin. The work gives the impression of a meditation on the unhappiness of humanity, but the unhappiness the author has in mind is not that of suffering and death, but rather of the final destiny of the human race which for him, with few exceptions, is eternal perdition.

The angelic sin has vanished off his horizon, the fall of the angels is not even mentioned; in his work it is the sin of humanity, but above all the sin of Adam, which is not as independent of the sin of humankind in the mind of this author as it was for the author of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch.

At the centre of our author's plan is the law (8:19-20; 9:31-32). In his justice God offered it to all humankind, but only Israel accepted it; this is the meaning of Israel's election. This implies the damnation of all pagans inasmuch as they refused the law; but the situation of the Jews is no better; they certainly possess the law, but they transgress it and have transgressed it. No man is without sin: this is the recurring idea: no-one can save himself because (even this is repeated frequently) the individual is fully responsible (3:8; 7:72,104,127; 8:56-58).

On the other hand, in juxtaposition with the idea that man is entirely free and therefore entirely responsible, he places the idea that Adam, besides the gift of free choice, had something else even more powerful: according to the Latin text, which is the language in which it has come down to us, he had an evil heart, cor malignum, which gave rise to the deed: cor enim malignum baiulans primus Adam transgressus... (led by his evil heart, Adam first transgressed... (3,21).
The concept of an evil heart corresponds closely with the yezer ha-ra' of rabbinics, but the idea held by the author differs from it insofar as he considers it a truly evil (if not satanic) power, stronger than man's capacity to choose.

Adam was defeated by it and thus all those who were born of him. It produced an everlasting sickness: in the heart of man the Law existed alongside the roots of evil. What was good disappeared and the evil remained.

The flood was useless; even after it the evil heart was still in the world. The gift of the law on Sinai was unable to bear fruit (3:20,27). Nothing remained except to curse Adam and in a certain sense also the One who was responsible for the situation:

It would be better if the earth (the earth or God?) had not produced Adam, or at least having produced him, had put him in a condition where he would not sin... Adam, what have you done? When you sinned, the fall not only affected you, but also us who are your descendants. What is the use of being promised immortality when at the same time we commit deathdealing acts?...

God corroborates:
This is the meaning of the struggle in which everyone born on earth has to engage; if he is defeated he suffers the consequences, but if he is victorious, he receives what I have promised (7:116-128)
Apocalyptic and the Problem of Evil
A global interpretation of apocalyptic is difficult. Its long duration, the complexity and variety of thought to be found therein, make for an uncertain judgment; too many elements considered fundamental at one time or another by modern scholarship, such as waiting for the judgment and resurrection, only appear in fact in some of the works. They seem to be isolated ideas rather than principles basic to the whole argument, what the Germans call the wesen (essence) of apocalyptic.

Perhaps if there is one problem running throughout the long history of Jewish apocalyptic, it is the problem of evil, seen not as transgression and the consequence of transgression, but as a reality pre-existant to the first human being.

It is even difficult to say if the apocalyptic vision of life is really pessimistic. If for the author of the Fourth Book of Ezra, man's life is a tragedy waiting to end in eternal damnation, it cannot be denied that for others the hope, not to say certainty, of help and salvation from God looks towards a new era and glorious reality for humankind. The fundamental psychological characteristic of apocalyptic writers appears to be a basic mistrust in man, which leads them to expect everything from God. Man's sin came to be given cosmic dimensions which could be interpreted as liberating: the burden of responsibility is removed to a distance, and its incubus on the shoulders of humankind is projected onto events, angelic (the sin of the angels) or human (the sin of Adam), which in any case are beyond the control of the individual and therefore not his responsibility.

These remarks are not intended to present apocalyptic writers as immoral or amoral; quite the contrary! From the little that is revealed of their life, they appear to he closer to the rigid morality of the Essenes than to the Pharisees' love of the Law. It is the immense dimension of the problem of evil which makes them not so much believe more in God than in man, but rather believe only in God and not at all in man. Is not this also a biblical theme?:
Thus says the Lord:
"Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land."
"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord..?
(Jer 17:5-7)

* Paolo Sacchi is Professor at the University of Turin in the Institute of Oriental Studies. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Henoch, a quarterly review featuring historical and philological studies on Judaism. He is the author of numerous articles on biblical and intertestamental themes and has written: Styria del Mondo Giudaico, Torino, Societe Editrice Internazionale, 1976.


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