The Dawn of Apocalyptic
The Historical and Sociological Roots of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology
by Paul D. Hanson
About The Book
Hanson’s undertaking, as indicated by its subtitle, is ambitious. It’s a study of historical developments & sociological ideologies that both resulted from & partially contributed to the socio-political upheavals in & around Jewish communities, especially during the 2nd Temple. Apocalyptic embraces a vast literature, including both primary & 2ndary sources. There’s a fog surrounding attempts to define it. One of his goals is to correct the oft misdirected attempts of authors who’ve offered definitions. But the primary purpose is to demonstrate that apocalyptic emerged gradually, partly as a result of political upheavals among the ruling nations around them, primarily as a result of class struggle within Judaism itself. This critique summarizes the essential information he presents, critically evaluating his conclusions.
Hanson’s book was published in ’75, revised in ’79. The only essential difference is an 18-page appendix: “An Overview of Early Jewish & Xian Apocalypticism.” On one hand, the appendix does what its title suggests, it gives a condensed synopsis. On the other hand, it provides two helpful contributions. The 1st is that he spends a little over a page discussing the opening verses of Revelation & how these contribute to the definition of apocalyptic. He sees it contributing on three levels of meaning: that of genre, the author’s perspective of reality in relation to Hebrew prophecy, & the type of religious movement that led to the literary product.
The 2nd helpful contribution is his concise definition of apocalyptic eschatology. His treatment in the foregoing material certainly discusses apocalyptic eschatology, but a concise definition is wanting. Here, in the appendix, he states: “Apocalyptic eschatology, therefore, is neither a genre (apocalypse) nor a socio-religious movement (apocalypticism) but a religious perspective which views divine plans in relation to historical realities in a particular way.”
There’s another general comment to be made regarding the need for a critique of a book published decades ago. There are three responses that justify a scholarly critique at this date. 1st, apocalyptic is a vast field with few scholars offering very little original thinking. Hanson is one of those few. He’s provided keen observations & insights that have moved scholarship forward. Much of what he says still needs critical evaluation. 2nd, while many scholars have cited his work, there have been few who’ve offered a critical examination from conservative standpoints. A 3rd response to the question is that he’s continued to write on apocalyptic up to the present. In ’83, he published Visionaries & Their Apocalypses. He provided another title in ’87 entitled Old Testament Apocalyptic. Most recently, he authored Isaiah 40-66. These works build upon his seminal The Dawn of Apocalyptic. To grasp the implications of his later writings, it’s necessary to understand the work which serves as their foundation.
Hanson’s book is in five chapters followed by ending material: selected bibliography, indices & appendix. At least one excursus in each of the five chapters (with the exception of 2) was provocatively insightful:
1 Phenomenon of Apocalyptic in Israel: Its Background & Setting
2 Isaiah 56-66 & the Visionary Disciples of 2nd Isaiah
3 The Origins of Post-Exilic Hierocracy
4 Zechariah 9-14 & the Development of the Apocalyptic Eschatology of the Visionaries
5 An Allegory & Explication
Titles & lengths reveal chapter 2 as the centerpiece, 40% of the work. It’s foundational. Chapter 1 is an introduction. Chapters 2-4 are programmatic, building one upon the other. Chapter 5 is epilogue, in that he simplifies & recasts everything argued as an allegory whereby King Royalty weds Queen Prophecy whose union yields “Apocalyptic Eschatology.”
This work is a valuable contribution to biblical scholarship in general & to the subject of apocalyptic in particular. As with most works offering original thinking departing from common paths, there will be negative reactions. This critique will highlight some objections in its turn, but such shouldn’t prevent one from recognizing genuine contributions & strengths. The Dawn of Apocalyptic has several strengths.
1st, the greatest contribution is to trace the concept of apocalyptic back to its roots. These roots (contrary to then current notions), aren’t found in foreign soils, but in the Jewish pre-exilic prophecy. Because apocalyptic had often been viewed from the standpoint of myth & cosmology, many were drawn to Daniel. By looking there, many concluded apocalyptic was Persian because of its strong influence there. Hanson rejects this. He recognizes Persian influence is evident, but only casually, incidentally, not causally. This is the primary function of the 1st chapter. Part of the reason scholars followed the wrong trail is because they chased the wrong scent, viz. definitions based on genre features. A focus on genre-based features is a 1-level approach leading scholars astray. Apocalyptic is multi-leveled & must be pursued accordingly. One of the chief sources is the socio-political factors which often led to a particular ideological perspective. Comparing early periods of prophecy with later periods of prophecy, Hanson discerns distinct differences in the literary products of the visionaries. These distinct differences are due to an evolution of perspective resulting: 1) externally, the political factors adversely affecting the Israelite community, & 2) internally, the class struggle between the priestly group (hierocrats) & the visionary prophets. In the early days, when the prophets spoke with divine authority as counterparts to keep kings in check, prophecy was tied directly to history. In later days, when “thus saith the Lord,” was only an echo, visionaries began to resort to a new form of prophetic utterance: apocalyptic. While there are problems in the development of this concept, his primary thesis is valuable.
A 2nd positive effort Hanson has made is his painstaking analysis of Hebrew prosody. Central chapters 2 & 4 provide such an analysis for each verse of the respective passages evaluated (Isaiah 56-66 & Zechariah 9-14). He provides facing pages (English-Hebrew) along with a parallel metric schema allowing visual representation of the metrical parallelism according to each colon. The purpose is to determine the relative date of a given text & to see where there might be evidence of a later hand at work reflecting an ideological shift in the text. Tho there’s a methodological problem inherent in that approach, credit should be given for such meticulous concern for both the text-critical work he offers & the careful analysis of the data.
A final observation of the contribution he’s made is his insight into sociological evolution & issues as pertains to the pre- & post-exilic history of Israel. He sees two groups in Jerusalem struggling against each other. He sees the visionary group as alienated & oppressed. They are clinging to the promises of the biblical prophets that another day is coming when god will cause a reversal of fortune. Otherwise, there are priests seeking to maintain the status quo because they’re privileged. If what the prophets have declared about judgment comes true, they lose not only identity, but also wealth & position. Thus, there’s a struggle inside the Jewish community between these groups. How Hanson works this out in the micro-structure of biblical texts is a methodological problem from a conservative standpoint. But his overall observation, from a sociological viewpoint, is a worthy consideration, for there are, indeed, prophetic passages where the prophets decry the state of the priesthood & the oppression of the poor. In a fresh way, he appreciates the kind of struggle going on.
As worthy as the foregoing commendations are, there are some objections. Only two will be offered, but they’re significant. 1st is his atomization of prophetic scripture. He appears to be sensitive to this initially, since he’s critical of others deemed guilty of such, but he’s not aware of his own adoption of this technique. F.i., in discussing Isaiah 66:1-16, he criticizes any scholar who would atomize these verses into four or five separate units. Yet his method is different only by degree. In this case he argues for the unity of the passage, basing this on the “contextual-typological” method of analysis. It’s clear from the chapter titles that he’s a presuppositional bias against the unity of scripture. He holds to the 3rd-Isaiah theory, believing that Isaiah was responsible for the 1st 39 chapters, a 2nd group (viz. disciples) responsible for 40-55 & a 3rd group of visionaries for 56-66. Below is an example of his contextual-typological method for determining the unity of Isaiah 63:7-64:11: “In seeking to avoid an impasse resulting from preoccupation with questions of authorship, we apply the tools of the contextual-typological method of inquiry. 1st, what can be said about the internal structure, meter & style of the composition? On the surface, the semblance of the archaic parallel structure is preserved, with the bicolon dominant & with an occasional tricolon adding to the archaic effect. The use of 1:b qinah in 63:7-14 adds an effective limping, lament-like quality to the 1st two strophes. When we carry the analysis below the surface, however, it becomes apparent that the quality of the poetry is far inferior to that of 2nd Isaiah, 57:14-19, & the archaizing sections of 60-62. Enjambment abounds, the words generally lack imaginative quality & the total effect is quite prosaic. The composition, judged on the basis of structure, meter & style, is thus typologically later than 2nd Isaiah, 60-62 & 57:14-19. However it falls earlier in the typology than the other oracles of 3rd Isaiah.”
Such an approach to scripture is fraught with subjectivity. Hanson is thoro in his contextual-typological method, attempting to be consistent, but he cannot escape the inherent weakness of the method. His approach is based on internal evidence only, not on any ms. evidence. In other words, he offers no ms. evidence suggesting three separate collections of an Isaiah tradition according to his chapter divisions. According to Motyer (’99), there’s a trend toward synthesis & against analysis in the book of Isaiah. Since Hanson’s fragmentary approach is the foundation of his book, it’s worthwhile to quote a more extensive passage from Motyer regarding the difficulty of such methodology: “The difference in the style of chapters 40-55 was an early argument for separating them from 1-39, & it’s still used as a means of distinguishing authors, even tho widely discredited. It is & always has been a nonsense. The Lord of the Rings, for example, evidences a narrative style, a dialog style & a poetic style. Must it have had three authors?”
If such is true of the larger blocks of material, then there is even less of a basis for a micro-division of sub-units within Isaiah. This is a methodological weakness of the work.
A 2nd objection is his dilution of predictive prophecy. This dilution is part & parcel of his thesis. According to Hanson, there were two rival groups within the Jerusalemite community: hierocratics & visionaries. It was the visionary group that had become dissatisfied with the events of history & began to pull away from the traditional understanding of the message of pre-exilic prophets. He argues that there’s a shift in polemic. In earlier pre-exilic days, the polemic was between Jewish community & pagan enemies. This polemic changed in post-exilic times & there was intra-community struggle for control. He goes so far as to say that the Haggai & Zechariah offered prophetic oracles opposing that of Ezekiel’s. Ezekiel had prophesied the restoration of the temple (40-48). But when Haggai & Zechariah appeared on the scene, they proclaimed the eschaton had arrived in contemporary events that were unfolding around them. When Zerubbabel became governor, consecrating a Zadokite high priest, the visionaries were even more polarized over this illegitimate priesthood. After an attempt at a priestly takeover with the visionaries coming up short, they came away feeling even more alienated & open to reinterpretation of how the fulfillment of restoration would take place. Hanson states that a “sudden resurgence of myth began to offer the possibility of escape rejected by early prophecy, & the result of this development was the death of prophecy & the birth of apocalyptic eschatology”. He elaborates in greater detail in yet another passage: “In the early apocalyptic literature the relation of the visionary community to history is undergoing a change. As the visionaries utilize myth to explain their situation, history isn’t dissolved into a mythological worldview, but neither is the prophetic message any longer translated directly into the terms of plain history.”
Thus, according to Hanson, the three divisions of Isaiah represent an evolution in the prophetic situation in Israel & consequently in the prophetic message. In 1st Isaiah 1-39 there is classical prophecy; he labels 2nd Isaiah 40-55 “proto-apocalyptic” & 3rd Isaiah 56-66 “early apocalyptic.” In other words, he doesn’t regard predictive prophecy as requiring a historical fulfillment, even if that prophecy was originally intended to be fulfilled.
This review has attempted to be balanced in critiquing Paul Hanson’s ’79 edition of The Dawn of Apocalyptic. Tho it was written years ago, his unique contributions to the thinking on apocalyptic eschatology still need to be answered. He’s made significant contributions, but he’s also employed methodology that is highly problematic for the conservative bible scholar who adopts historical-grammatical-literary interpretation. While his overall theory that apocalyptic finds its roots in the prophetic history of Israel has merit, his development of that theory which destroys predictive prophecy must be rejected. Oracles of god thru various prophets over centuries must stand or fall as a unit. It will not do to have conflicting prophetic voices proclaiming substantively different programs for Israel. The meaning god intends to communicate thru an earlier prophet cannot be changed by a later one. His approach doesn’t respect this essential unity of scripture. — DePriest (abridged)
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