The Apocalyptic Imagination

An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature

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John J. Collins
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Apocalyptic Imagination, John J. Collins sets out to familiarize his readers with apocalyptic literature, unusually introducing these texts a part of an historically unpopular genre within biblical scholarship. One plausible explanation for this unpopularity is the following: “The word ‘apocalyptic’ is popularly associated with fanatical millenarian expectation… There is consequently a prejudice against the apocalyptic literature which is deeply ingrained in biblical scholarship” (1-2). Collins goes on to lend the genre of apocalyptic literature credibility as its own literary form, removing it from any fanatical manifestations which might be present in modern society. From the very start of the book, Collins begins a very nuanced discussion about what “apocalyptic” means in the literary context of Jewish writings. Truthfully, though confusingly, Collins quotes another scholar’s observation that “‘truly apocalyptic apocalypses are the exception rather than the rule’” (16). Many—though not all—share features concerning the end-time, yielding the following general framework: The text is composed in a narrative style in which a divine revelation is revealed to a human figure who is given a pseudonym taken from ancient Hebrew scripture. An angel interprets the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed (6).

Collins appreciates the anachronism of categorizing these largely Second Temple writings as apocalyptic. “It would seem that the Jewish apocalyptic writings that lack a common title and are often combined with other forms had not yet attained the generic self-consciousness” (5). However, by outlining primary features of the apocalyptic genre (6), Collins demonstrates the framework that many of these texts share, thus legitimizing a group categorization under the heading of “apocalyptic literature.”

The bulk of The Apocalyptic Imagination is focused on close readings of apocalyptic texts, interpreting each text and some of its defining themes and parallels in other literature. For example, the book of Daniel is famous for its prediction of the “four kingdoms,” namely, a succession of empires that will conquer the Mediterranean sequentially, to be miraculously and supernaturally demised in the end time. Collins provides fascinating comparisons with other Jewish texts which mention the four kingdoms, as well as some non-Jewish compositions similarly mentioning a succession of kingdoms, with an implication of a miraculous end time at their completion. He looks into ancient Persian materials as well as ancient Near Eastern texts to illustrate a common Zeitgeist, but also to distinguish the phenomenon in the Jewish texts.

A peculiarity of apocalyptic literature concerns the specificity of some of the prophecies, or vision-interpretations, that it includes. This specificity is suspicious in its seemingly precise foreknowledge of future events, leading to consensus among most scholars that such texts are composed post facto, retrojecting current history onto ancient foretellings. Quoting A.K. Grayson, Collins brings to light this phenomenon, shared by both Akkadian and Jewish apocalyptic texts: “An Akkadian prophecy is a prose composition consisting in the main of a number of ‘predictions’ of past events. It then concludes either with a ‘prediction’ of phenomena in the writer’s day or with a genuine attempt to forecast future events. The author, in other words, uses vaticinia ex eventu to establish his credibility and then proceeds to his real purpose, which might be to justify a current idea or institution” (33). Vaticinia ex eventu, the retrojected “prophecies” which are clearly written after the events have occurred, are certainly a pronounced feature in Jewish apocalyptic texts. Daniel is rife with such “predictions,” including a detailed allegory of the Greek domination of Israel, and concluding with a mistaken prediction of how the final events of the emperor’s reign will unfold. This mistake turns out to be very helpful for dating the text, however, as we then know when the author started making sincere guesses about future events.

Collins does not, however, offer an answer to the glaring question: how did contemporary readers of these texts understand these “predictions”? Are we to assume society was so gullible as to believe that every text which pretended to be ancient was? Did none of them question the surprising accuracy of some of these predictions? Though we have little-to-no documentation of the reception history of apocalyptic literature in Second Temple times, the question must be entertained, and creative hypotheses should be considered. Perhaps contemporaries of such texts never thought these books to be true prophecy; or perhaps, their definition of prophecy was radically different from its contemporary notions.

Collins’s book is a wonderful introduction to apocalyptic literature, and it serves as an interesting and highly accessible text for those looking to become acquainted with ancient Jewish perceptions and predictions of the end times.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Renz is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John J. Collins is Holmes professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School and has served as president of both the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association.


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