How major Christian apocalypses emerged

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In a brief period, perhaps no wider than ffy years in the late frst to early second
century CE, four major Christian apocalypses emerged: Revelation, the Shepherd of
Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Ascension of Isaiah. Tree of these apocalypses, all but the Ascension of Isaiah, received recognition as sacred scripture in at
least some early Christian communities. (Tat same period produced great Jewish
apocalypses such as 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham.)
Despite their temporal proximity, the literary frameworks of these four Christian
apocalypses scarcely resemble one another. Yes, they are all apocalypses: each narrates a visionary revelation that features guidance from a heavenly intermediary,
a revelation that discloses a transcendent reality in terms of the age to come and/
or otherworldly realms (Collins 1979; Collins 1998: 2–9). Nevertheless, within this
generic framework these apocalypses demonstrate profound diversity.
t 3FWFMBUJPO EFTDSJCFT +PIOT BTDFOU JOUP IFBWFO GSPN XIJDI IF PCTFSWFT FTDIBUPlogical drama unfold on earth, leading to the destruction of Babylon (meaning
Rome) and the emergence of the New Jerusalem. Revelation challenges a group of
churches to bear testimony to Christ by removing themselves from the trappings
of imperial religion and exploitation.
t 5IF Shepherd of Hermas consists of three sections: Hermas’s dialogues and visions
involving the woman church (Visions), his audition of a series of moral instructions (Mandates), and another series of visionary allegories (Parables). Among
its many concerns Hermas speaks to church discipline, particularly in an age of
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 219
t 5IF Ascension of Isaiah inserts two vision reports within the framework of a legend concerning the prophet Isaiah’s death. Almost certainly this process involved
the insertion of Christian apocalyptic material into a Jewish literary source, often
called the Martyrdom of Isaiah. The Ascension of Isaiah includes Isaiah’s tour of
the seven heavens, and its concerns involve christology (the nature of the incarnation), an indictment against laxity among the churches and their leaders, and
anti-Jewish polemic.
t 5IF Apocalypse of Peter inserts its revelation into scenes from the Synoptic
Gospels, particularly Matthew. During Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse on the Mount
of Olives (see Matthew 24), Jesus delivers a vision on the palm of his right hand.
This vision corresponds to chapters 1–14 of the Apocalypse of Peter. Chapters 15–17
are set within the context of the Transfiguration (see Matt 17:1–9a). These revelations emphasize the fate of the dead, particularly the wicked whose punishments
famously correspond to the nature of their crimes.
Tese four apocalypses difer widely with respect to the concerns they address as
well as to their literary forms. Teir diversity provides only a narrow glimpse into the
broader spectrum of early Christian apocalyptic discourse, which ranges far beyond
the boundaries of these literary apocalypses. We fnd apocalyptic teachings scattered
throughout the Gospels, epistolary literature, and the writings commonly assigned
to the “Apostolic Fathers.” If our brief survey of the apocalypses demonstrates the
remarkable fexibility and adaptability of early Christian apocalyptic rhetoric, more
thorough study deepens and refnes that initial impression.
History endowed Christian apocalyptic discourse with the potential for diverse
expressions and functions right from the beginning. We remind ourselves that the
adjective “Christian” is anachronistic for the movement’s frst several decades and for
almost all of the New Testament literature. We employ “Christian” merely as a shorthand for the groups, texts, and other phenomena that we have come to associate with
the Christian movement. Before Jesus emerged on the scene, Jewish apocalyptic discourse had already developed and fourished in manifold ways. Even within the Dead
Sea Scrolls we encounter highly speculative texts bordering on scientifc speculation
(e.g., copies of the Book of the Watchers), theological concepts that blend apocalyptic
and wisdom motifs (e.g., the doctrine of the Two Spirits), and eschatological fantasizing (e.g., the War Scroll). It is probable that John the Baptizer understood his ministry
in the context of apocalyptic eschatology, that Paul’s resistance against and then conversion to the movement had something to do with his own afnity for apocalyptic
eschatology, that the author of Revelation knew Jewish apocalypses before composing one of his own, and so on. In other words, “Christian” apocalyptic rhetoric did not
emerge from a single, one-dimensional source; diverse forms and functions marked
it from the beginning.
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220 Greg Carey
Apocalyptic Rhetoric
Aristotle long ago defned rhetoric as the capacity to perceive possible means of
persuasion concerning any conceivable topic (Rhetoric 1.2.1). Troughout the ages
people have continued to explore, experiment, and strategize concerning how best
to move people and groups to see things their way, to behave as they desire, and to
value the things they value. Whether or not cultures develop systematic approaches
to rhetoric is beside the point; the work of persuasion is a cross-cultural phenomenon
(Kennedy 1997). A rhetorical approach to apocalyptic literature, then, assumes that
ancient texts were composed to persuade people and groups. Te material conditions
of writing in the ancient world—with expensive writing materials, time-consuming
transcription, and labor-intensive delivery of texts to their audiences—suggests that
few ancient writers composed simply for their own amusement. Instead, the extant
corpus of early Christian writing and copying refects that ancient people almost
always wrote with a purpose.
As for apocalyptic literature, those purposes for which people wrote mark the
defning interest of rhetorical interpretation. Rhetorical interpretation investigates
the social contexts in which texts emerged, the conventions of persuasion appropriate to particular cultural moments and genres of discourse, the persuasive strategies at play in the texts themselves, and the measurable efects of those texts upon
actual audiences. We seek to ascertain not only the ends or functions to which early
Christians appropriated apocalyptic discourse but also the ways in which they sought
to accomplish those ends.
In the past scholars tended to emphasize the development of ideas and literary
forms refected in ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, along with
the social contexts in which such literature emerged. Te past twenty-fve years have
yielded greater interest in their rhetorical dimensions. Without invoking the language of rhetoric, Wayne A. Meeks called attention to the “social functions of apocalyptic language” in a 1979 paper (Meeks 1982). Another critical moment occurred
when John J. Collins recommended that the defnition of an apocalypse should
include “a rather general statement of function” (1991: 14; cf. Collins 1979: 9). More
focused attention to apocalyptic rhetoric began to emerge in the 1990s (Schüssler
Fiorenza 1991; O’Leary 1994; Carey and Bloomquist 1999), as interpreters considered
how apocalyptic discourse “works” to change opinion and move groups to action.
Beginning with Revelation, but continuing his analysis through the
nineteenth-century Millerite movement in the United States and the late
twentieth-century millennial speculation of Hal Lindsey and Pat Robertson, Stephen
D. O’Leary maintained that millennial rhetoric always addresses the topics of time,
evil, and authority. Having identifed prevailing social ills (evil), millennial speakers
argue that divine intervention is imminent (time). Tey claim unique or revealed
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 221
knowledge concerning these matters (authority) on the basis of either revelation or
superior scriptural interpretation. O’Leary’s account has not entirely satisfed biblical
scholars: it addresses millennial, or future-oriented apocalyptic rhetoric, but it does
not account for tours of otherworldly regions such as we fnd in many apocalyptic texts. Moreover, from a rhetorical perspective “topics” (topoi in Greek rhetorical
theory) include not only the fundamental concerns of a given discourse—time, evil,
and authority in O’Leary’s proposal—but also the basic building blocks of argumentation, argumentative and stylistic commonplaces. Nevertheless, O’Leary has provided a template for ongoing research into apocalyptic rhetoric. Apocalyptic rhetoric
involves topics, critical concerns and perduring literary motifs, along with unique
appeals to authority. Rhetorical interpretation involves the assessment of how apocalyptic texts confgure those topics and construct their own authority in order to
address the circumstances of their audiences.
Ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature developed a thick repertoire
of available topics, both conceptual and stylistic. Interpreters have ofered many
lists over the years, but it is impossible to ofer a systematic and exhaustive catalog.
Conceptually, apocalyptic discourse ofen features an interest in alternative worlds,
whether temporal (future) or spatial (heavenly or hellish); an era of cosmic distress or
human chaos that precedes the ultimate moment of divine intervention; the activity
of supernatural characters such as angels and demons; an outlook marked by dualism
and determinism that divides the righteous from the wicked and marks each group
for their distinctive fate; speculation concerning heavenly mysteries; and an interest
in fnal judgment, resurrection, and the aferlife. Apocalyptic topoi also include a
remarkable array of literary and rhetorical devices: reports of visions and/or auditions, the presence of heavenly intermediaries who guide visionaries; pseudonymity;
the schematic division of history into discrete periods; ex eventu prophecy involving
“predictions” that actually recount events afer the fact; and intense and ofen bizarre
symbolism. Rhetorical interpretation emphasizes the ways in which apocalyptic
texts deployed these conceptual and literary commonplaces and the ends they were
designed to serve.
Greco-Roman orators commonly classifed rhetorical efectiveness under three
main categories. Ethos involves a speaker’s credibility, demonstrating oneself as a
person of virtue, knowledge, and good will (Carey 1999: 46–61). Pathos accounts for
the capacity to move an audience, particularly its emotions. And logos points to the
appeal to reason. Tese categories, developed to account for speechmaking in public
assemblies, may or may not have been on the minds of apocalyptic authors. We do
not appeal to them as “background” for interpreting apocalypses and related literature. Instead, they ofer a heuristic device for exploring the rhetorical dimension of
early Christian literature.
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222 Greg Carey
Primary and Secondary Apocalyptic
We encounter early Christian apocalyptic discourse in diverse literary and social contexts. Tese contexts provide the foundation for the kinds of arguments we encounter
among varioustexts.
One distinction involves what we might call primary and secondary forms of
apocalyptic discourse. Primary apocalyptic discourse appeals to the speaker’s direct
reception of revelation. Te phrase “appeals to” is essential. Many instances of primary apocalyptic discourse feature pseudonymity; that is, they purport to relate the
frst-person revelatory experiences of prominent persons from the past. Almost all
of the great literary apocalypses refect this pattern. Enoch, the seventh-generation
human who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen
5:24, NRSV), surely did not compose the literary apocalypses attributed to him, but
they rely upon the fgure of Enoch for their authority. Nor did Jesus’ disciple Peter
compose the Christian Apocalypse of Peter, in which Peter perceives the souls of all
people in the palm of Jesus’ right hand (3:1). Primary apocalyptic rhetoric involves
the highest possible claim to authority by purporting to describe direct revelation
from the heavenly realms.
Secondary apocalyptic discourse does not appeal to immediate revelations but
instead relies upon the interpretation of primary apocalyptic texts or to “common
knowledge” that has emerged from apocalyptic discourse’s cultural repertoire. For
example, consider 2 Peter 3:10–12:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away
with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fre, and the earth and
everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness
and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of
which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with
fre? (NRSV)
For our purposes, we frst observe how the day of the Lord will “come like a thief,”
an image that functions as part of the common repertoire of early Christian apocalyptic discourse. Paul appeals to it (1 Tess 5:2, 4), as does Revelation (3:3). Te thief
motif apparently derives from ancient Jesus tradition (Matt 24:43; Luke 12:39). We
don’t know where or how the “thief in the night” topic entered early Christian discourse, but it was well before the composition of 2 Peter. As an instance of secondary
apocalyptic discourse 2 Peter 3:10–12 appropriates that topic into the fow of its own
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 223
As for the function of this argument, 2 Peter raises the question, “What sort of persons ought you to be?” Tis question exemplifes a common function for apocalyptic
discourse, exhortation. Te fearsome nature of the “day of the Lord,” along with its
suddenness, calls for a peculiar combination of urgency and fdelity. “What sort of
persons?” indeed.
Eschatological distress, ofen refected in cosmic portents, marks a common topic
in apocalyptic discourse, and 2 Peter 3:10–12 adapts this one as well. Adapting scriptural precedent, Matthew’s Jesus warns of a cosmic tribulation in which the sun is
darkened and the moon gives no light, while stars fall from heaven and the heavenly
powers are shaken (24:29; see Isa 13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:10; 3:4; 4:15; Ezek 32:7). Perhaps 2
Peter shows some conceptual development by imagining the very “elements” (Greek
stoicheia) melting in the fre, particularly if the elements represent the constitutive
building blocks of the cosmos. In any case, the basic scenario is familiar. Te core
images—the thief and the cosmic portents—represent second-order, or derivative,
conceptualization. Te creativity resides in the appropriation and application of such
We should not confuse ourselves that distinctions such as the one between primary and secondary apocalyptic discourse have some clean line of demarcation.
Tese are our categories, and they can be useful for analysis. But an ancient author
like Paul apparently had no problem employing both approaches. On multiple occasions he turns to his own apocalyptic experiences (Gal 1:12, 15; 2:2; 2 Cor 12:1–10), but
he also relates the teaching he has received (e.g., 1 Tess 5:2). Paul’s accounts of his
own revelatory experiences always support arguments for his own authority, whereas
he uses secondary apocalyptic discourse for various functions, including comfort
and exhortation. His example refects the important distinction between primary
and secondary apocalyptic argumentation. Primary apocalyptic discourse necessarily emphasizes its own authority, whereas secondary discourse adapts apocalyptic
topics to various purposes.
Te distinction between primary and secondary apocalyptic discourse proves
especially productive when we consider how apocalyptic texts interpret their antecedents. One well-known example involves Revelation’s several references to a period
of about three and one-half years (11:2–3; 12:6, 14; 13:5). Here Revelation alludes to the
“time, two times, and half a time” (NRSV) of Daniel 7:25 and 12:7. Daniel’s chronology
refers to the Antiochene Crisis and the Maccabean Revolt, which lasted about three
and a half years (167–164 BCE). For its part Daniel interprets 25:11–12; 29:10–14:Daniel
renders Jeremiah’s seventy years as seventy weeks of years (Jer 25:11–12; 29:10–14; Dan
9:2, 24–27). But Revelation, addressing a diferent situation altogether, appropriates
Daniel’s language. In both Revelation and Daniel primary apocalyptic discourse,
with its appeal to direct revelation, provides the rhetorical authority sufcient to justify the reinterpretation of sacred texts. In contrast, the epistle of Jude makes no claim
to direct revelation when it quotes 1 Enoch 1:9 (Jude 14–15), presumably invoking its
warning against “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of God into licentiousness
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224 Greg Carey
and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). As secondary apocalyptic
discourse, Jude must rely upon the authority of 1 Enoch.
Primary apocalyptic discourse usually, but not always, fnds its expression in the
literary apocalypses, while secondary apocalyptic discourse can make a home just
about anywhere. Te epistle of James, for example, never advances an argument concerning apocalyptic eschatology. Most of its arguments have to do with daily living.
For example, James promises those “doers of the word” that “they will be blessed in
their doing” (1:25). Yet James invokes apocalyptic topics on several occasions, referring to a promised “crown of life” (1:12), a fearsome judgment (2:12–13; 3:1; 4:12; 5:4, 9,
20), demonic beings (2:19; 4:7), and the coming of the Lord (5:8).
Elite or Popular?
Te distinction between primary and secondary forms of apocalyptic discourse
also suggests diverse social settings (Horsley 1998). Te great literary apocalypses,
all examples of primary apocalyptic discourse, strongly suggest scribal settings
with learned authors. When Anathea E. Portier-Young describes the earliest Jewish
apocalypses’ “use of ‘mythical images rich in symbolism’ ” that “exposes and counters imperial mythologies, sometimes through a strategy of critical inversion that
enables readers to reimagine a world governed not by empires, but by God,” we are
clearly in the realm of elite literature (Portier-Young 2011: 44; see Horsley 2007).
We also encounter highly learned activity in Revelation and the Ascension of
Isaiah. However, the vast majority of early Christian apocalyptic discourse does not
appeal to esoteric scribal circles but rather directs itself toward a more common audience. (Te Ascension of Isaiah presents a likely exception.) Te author of Revelation
is familiar with the conventions of the classical apocalypses. Revelation alludes to
the popular mythologies and codes of Roman imperial propaganda, and it demonstrates a profoundly “scholarly” engagement with the Jewish Scriptures. For example,
Revelation never directly quotes from the Tanak, but it alludes to scriptural images
and phrases more ofen than does any other New Testament book. Te ways in which
Revelation uses scripture also merit attention. For example, Revelation engages
Ezekiel primarily by alluding to fve sections of that prophetic work—in Ezekiel’s
order (Moyise 2001: 117). When Revelation 1:12–20 draws upon Daniel, Ezekiel, and
Isaiah, the direct allusions work from one book to the next, following each book in its
own order. Revelation’s author does not show a sophisticated grasp of literary Greek,
though scholars debate whether Revelation’s poor Greek refects a deeper sophistication (Callahan 1995). Regardless of John’s facility with Greek, the book indicates a
highly skilled author with a measure of scribal credentials.
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 225
At the same time, we ought not associate Revelation’s scribal identity with that
of the great Jewish apocalypses such as 1 Enoch, Daniel, and 4 Ezra. First Enoch
certainly attained great infuence, but its various books name their audiences only
in the vaguest of terms (1.1; 37.1–5; 87.1–4; 91.1–3; 92.1; 108.1). Daniel never mentions
its audience directly, though it does envision a group of wise persons (maskilim)
who may lead the faithful in the last days (esp. 11:33). And while 4 Ezra concludes
with instructions for widespread publication, it discriminates between information that should be “open” and information that should be available only to the wise
(esp. 14:6, 26, 45–46). By contrast, Revelation’s “scribal” nature does not imply an
exclusive audience; Revelation addresses a specifc audience of seven churches (1:4,
11; 22:16).
Nor should we confuse secondary apocalyptic literature as “popular” literature in
some naive fashion. Historians debate whether literacy was simply rare or exceedingly
rare in the ancient world (Harris 1989; Humphrey 1991), but the resources required
for the composition of, say, a Pauline letter far transcend the ordinary ability to read
popular literature or compose letters. Early Christianity lacked the social structures
that would have produced scribal communities that specialized in the production
and interpretation of literature. Instead, most early Christian apocalyptic discourse
occurs in literature intended for communal reading. Tis is most obviously true of
the New Testament epistles and we assume it to be the case for the Gospels, but even
Revelation presents itself as a letter addressed to seven specifc churches.
A fascination with the scribal concerns such as writing and books pervades early
Christian apocalypses no less than antecedent and contemporary Jewish apocalypses (the most famous instance being 4 Ezra 14). John records being told to “Write
in a book what you see” (Rev 1:11; see 1:19), and he receives repeated instructions to
write during the apocalypse. Te Ascension of Isaiah, a radical Christian redaction
of a Jewish text, includes little explicit refection on writing. One Christian element,
however, alludes to “written words” concerning the career of Jesus and of the church
(1:5), while another alludes to a book that includes the deeds of mortals (9:22–23),
presumably the “book of life,” a tradition shared with 1 Enoch (108.3), Daniel (12:1),
and Revelation (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; see Luke 10:20). Te Apocalypse of
Peter likewise does not devote a great deal of attention to writing, but it concludes
with a reference to the “book of life” (17), while the Apocalypse also meditates upon
Synoptic traditions involving the fg tree and the transfguration (Matt 24:32; Matt
Te Shepherd of Hermas poses a particularly interesting case. Initially Hermas
does not specify a specifc audience, but later on it does indicate an impulse toward
popular consumption (e.g., 17.11; 26.5–7; 46.2–3; 77.1; 111.3). Other early Christian
apocalypses such as the Apocalypse of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah refect no
such impulse, at least not directly; some interpreters even regard the Ascension of
Isaiah as addressed to small circles of Christian prophets (3:27–28; see Pesce 1983;
Hall 1990). But Hermas provides an overt nod to its audience:
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226 Greg Carey
But make these words known to all your children and your wife, who is about to become
your sister…. Afer you have made known to them the words that the Master has commanded me to reveal to you, then all the sins they formerly committed will be forgiven
them, along with those of all the saints who have sinned to this day…. And so, say to
those who lead the church that they are to make their paths straight in righteousness,
that they may fully receive the promises with great glory. (6.3–6, trans. Ehrman 2003)
And aferward Isaw a vision in my house. Te elderly woman came and asked if I had
already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. “You have done well,”
she said. “For I have some words to add. Ten, when I complete all the words, they
will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. And so, you will write
two little books, sending one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement will send his to
the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows
and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the
church. (8.2–3, trans. Ehrman 2003)
Tus Hermas begins by identifying no audience in particular, moves on address the
seers’ own children and wife (in that order), progresses to the elders of the church,
and fnally includes “foreign cities” and all the elect in Rome (8.2). We can only guess
as to the connection between this multitiered literary address and the historical circumstances in which the apocalypse was produced.
By “popular” apocalyptic literature we cannot mean works produced by ordinary
people. By defnition, “ordinary people” lacked both the expertise and the resources
to compose even a short epistle of the kind we fnd in early Christian literature.
Popular apocalyptic literature involves highly expert authors who meant to address
ordinary people, whether in specifc settings or for general consumption.
Ethos: Apocalyptic Authority
Authority marks one of the distinctive strengths—and points of contention—for
apocalyptic discourse. O’Leary observes that “we do not accept epochal announcements from simply anyone who claims to have discovered the cosmic signifcance
of evil or to have calculated the remaining duration of the cosmos” (1994: 51; see
Knight 2001: 487). Arecent bestseller admirably demonstrates this principle. Heaven
Is for Real amounts to a modern apocalypse: during surgery a pastor’s four-year-old
son undergoes a near death experience and visits heaven (Burpo 2010). Te book’s
evident purpose is exhortation, to encourage believers’ confdence in the aferlife. In
heaven the little boy sees people and things he couldn’t possibly have known about,
including his miscarried sister. In that story we see a blend of apologetics and pro-life
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 227
politics. What better way to make the case for conventional aferlife hope, with a cultural edge, than through the visionary report of a four-year-old boy?
Te authority of primary apocalyptic discourse resides just below the level of hearing directly from God. Apocalyptic visionaries purport to describe what they hear
and see in the heavenly realms. Teir fascination with writing and books, discussed
above, refects this mode of authority. Revelation, for example, claims to relate all
that John has seen (1:2)—a practical impossibility. But, as with Paul (2 Cor 12:4), John
“cannot” share everything he sees and hears. A voice instructs him to “seal up” what
he hears from the seven thunders: “do not write it down” (Rev 10:4; see Ruiz 1994;
Carey 1999: 123–25; deSilva 2009: 120–21). Tis literary device, reporting a vision
without describing it, simultaneously builds a bridge to the audience while reserving
superior knowledge to the visionary (though see Humphrey 2007: 45–48).
Revelation may represent the high-water mark of apocalyptic authority. Te vision
begins and ends by blessing those who “keep” it and cursing those who modify or
depart from it (1:3; 22:18–19). Te blessings and curses found in the letters to the seven
churches (chs. 2–3) convey the same essential message.
Also instructive, however, is Paul. Paul frequently draws upon apocalyptic topics,
particularly the parousia and resurrection. However, Paul’s direct recourse to primary apocalyptic discourse occurs only when he is grappling to establish his own
authority. Interpreters debate whether his accounts of his own revelatory experiences all relate to one single event; in my opinion, they probably do not (see 2 Cor
12:1–10; Gal 1:12, 16; 2:2). Nevertheless, they all occur in contexts marked by confict.
In both Galatians and 2 Corinthians Paul applies the language of “another gospel”
to his opponents (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6–7), followed by appeals to his own independent
“apocalypses.” Likewise, Paul insists that his famous consultation with James and
Peter resulted neither from external pressure nor from a desire to align himself with
the authority of “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders” (Gal 2:6);
instead, he traveled kata apokalypsin, literally, “according to an apocalypse” (2:4).
Paul’s appeals to his own apocalypses occur specifcally in his most intense moments
of confict.
Despite the extraordinarily high claims to authority inherent in apocalyptic discourse, authors ofen chose not to assert a direct top-down mode of authority. Even
Paul’s case for the superiority of his revelatory experiences concludes with a refection on his own weakness (2 Cor 12:7–10). Hermas begins by acknowledging his own
identity as a sinner (1.5–9; 3.1; 7.1) and his faulty memory, due in part to the astonishing contents of his revelation (3.3). When scolded, however, Hermas occasionally
speaks up for himself (e.g., 57.1–2). He draws close to the audience by making it absolutely clear that he is not their superior (12.3); though he attempts to be pious, even
those eforts are misguided (54.1–5). Te Apocalypse of Peter draws upon the apostle’s
identity as a preeminent leader in the church’s earliest days, but its audience surely
was acquainted with Peter’s failures as well. Like nearly every apocalyptic visionary
Peter seeks assistance in understanding his vision (2)—and he receives correction,
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228 Greg Carey
even rebuke, on occasion (2, 16). Hermas and Peter alike further demonstrate their
good will by demonstrating compassion for those who face judgment (Hermas 63.1–
2; Apoc. Pet. 3).
Revelation ofers an especially rich blend of authoritarian and accommodationist rhetoric. We have already noted John’s extraordinarily high claims to authority,
but John also goes to great lengths to identify with the churches. He addresses his
audience as “partners” (1:9, my translation), kings, and priests (1:6). If John is a slave
of Christ’s, he is also a witness (martys)—just like his audience (e.g., 1:1, 2, 9; 12:11;
22:6). Like other apocalyptic visionaries, John describes falling at the feet of heavenly
beings—and being corrected for it (1:17; 19:10; 22:8). And like other visionaries, he
needs help in understanding his visions and weeps greatly when his hopes are frustrated (5:4–5; 7:13–17; 17:7–8). All these literary devices portray John’s solidarity with
his audience and his authentic humanity.
Early Christian authors were keenly aware that apocalyptic discourse packed powerful potential for establishing authority. Simply, apocalyptic visionaries claimed
degrees of knowledge to which their audiences completely lacked access. But credibility extends beyond knowledge to good will, and apocalyptic authors also worked
hard to invite their audiences to identify with their humanity, their piety, and their
Pathos: Moving the Audience
People commonly associate apocalyptic literature with the appeal to the emotions,
primarily with the fear of judgment. Indeed, judgment plays a prominent role in
early Christian apocalyptic discourse, ofen with an implied threat. But the appeal
to the emotions is hardly limited to the combination of threat and fear. For example,
the Apocalypse of Peter is notorious for its depictions of eternal punishments that ft
individuals’ crimes: blasphemers hang by their tongues, adulterous women hang by
their hair, and adulterous men hang by their, um, thighs (7). Tis grisly tour commands far more space than the images of bliss reserved for the righteous. But this
apocalypse ofers more than scare tactics. Many modern readers will fnd it ofensive,
but the Apocalypse of Peter seeks to comfort its audience by depicting the torment of
those who have persecuted and betrayed them (9).
Anxiety provides one common factor for apocalyptic discourse, particularly anxiety related to persecution. Jesus’ Synoptic “little apocalypse” reminds his followers of this threat (Mark 13:9–13; cf. Matt 24:9–14; Luke 21:12–19). Persecution does
not appear to be a new concern for the Gospel audiences; instead, it seems these
warnings served a diferent function. A period of crisis and persecution prior to
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 229
God’s decisive intervention marks a common topic in apocalyptic eschatology.
Tese references to end-time persecution likely served to exhort or encourage the
Gospel audiences to persevere in their fdelity despite the threat of persecution.
Afer all, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).
As with the Apocalypse of Peter, the threat of persecution can foster a desire for
vengeance. Revelation includes a similar dynamic, refected especially in the hymns
that celebrate God’s judgment against the inhabitants of the earth (15:3–4; 16:5–7).
Tese hymns invite the audience to participate in an emotional experience that may
free them from their anxiety (see Yarbro Collins 1984: 156–57). Revelation gives voice
to the anxiety of its audience, placing the audience’s frustration in the mouths of the
martyrs: “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and
avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:10).
Te rhetoric of identifcation and counteridentifcation also contributes to
Revelation’s emotional appeal (Carey 1999: 118–28; deSilva 2009: 175–228). In the letters to the churches the risen Jesus speaks directly to the churches (Carey 2008),
encouraging emulation of the faithful among them and pronouncing shame upon
those who fall short of his standards (deSilva 2009: 189–92). John dehumanizes his
opponents by refusing to use their real names, and he depicts the competing prophet
“Jezebel” as a victim of sexual violence (2:20–24). Similar dehumanization applies to
the monstrous Beast and to Babylon, symbols that point to Roman hubris and exploitation. Babylon, like Jezebel, also sufers sexual violence. And while Revelation’s more
positive symbols can be frightening in their own right (1:12–20), even a Lamb with
seven horns and eyes (5:6) would seem less menacing than the Beast. Likewise, a
mother (ch. 12) and a bride (ch. 21) contrast favorably to a prostitute who drinks
blood (17:6). Even the general population, the “inhabitants of the earth,” are deprived
of their humanity as they lack the basic capacity to repent in the midst of their torment (9:20–21; 16:9, 11). Revelation invites its audience to identify with the Lamb and
the martyrs while recoiling from the Beast and the general populace.
If many people associate apocalyptic discourse with fearmongering, others
accuse it of peddling empty hope. Again, a grim assessment of the present, tempered
by hope for a radically better reality in the future or beyond the grave, provides one
marker of apocalyptic eschatology. Te anxiety concerning persecution pervades
early Christian apocalyptic discourse; indeed, one encounters this concern at every
documentary layer of the New Testament. Apocalyptic discourse gives voice to and
interprets such anxiety. However, attention to the rhetoric of identifcation and
counteridentifcation (Burke 1969) undermines the temptation to reduce apocalyptic discourse to scare tactics and vain promises. Identifcation and counteridentifcation have to do with values, with emulating those who practice one set of values
and recoiling from those who pursue others.
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230 Greg Carey
Logos: Forms of Argumentation
Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of apocalyptic discourse lies in a practically inexhaustible set of persuasive resources. One might immediately associate apocalyptic argumentation with outright assertion. Te Synoptic apocalypse
amounts almost entirely of straightforward assertion, as do the blessings and curses
that frame Revelation (1:3; 22:18–19). Te Shepherd of Hermas veers only slightly
from straightforward assertion, as it places many of its assertions in the mouths
of the “Shepherd” who guides Hermas through a series of moral exhortations and
interprets his visions. Such exposition, the interpretation of a vision by a heavenly
intermediary, marks a defning characteristic of the early Jewish and Christian apocalypses. Te Christian Sibylline Oracles are nothing if not encoded assertions, while
straightforward assertions constitute nearly all of the Christian visionary sections of
the Ascension of Isaiah. Tough early Christian apocalyptic rhetoric does rely upon
direct assertion and interpretive exposition, it deploys many other argumentative
resources as well.
Readers routinely note the presence of striking images and symbols in apocalyptic
discourse. In some cases these symbols invite a process of decoding. For example,
Revelation 12:9 directly identifes the Dragon as Satan, while 13:18 challenges wise
readers to calculate the number of the Beast. However, apocalyptic symbols refect
varying degrees of literary sophistication (see Robbins 2008). We fnd one relatively
straightforward example when a great beast confronts Hermas on a road. Having
just heard a voice saying, “Do not be of two minds, Hermas,” Hermas courageously
confronts the monster, then walks around it while the monster meekly stretches out
on the ground and sticks out its tongue. Ayoung woman informs Hermas that he has
escaped persecution on account of his faith (22–23).
A somewhat more sophisticated example occurs in Revelation 5:1–8, where symbolic rhetoric blends with juxtaposition, another common feature in apocalyptic
argumentation. Revelation famously contrasts the Lamb with the Beast. Te two
fgures share several resemblances: both receive worship, survive mortal wounds,
and conquer their opponents. But Revelation 5:1–8 juxtaposes one messiah-image
over against another. Awaiting the revelation of one “worthy to open the scroll” that
reveals the world’s destiny, John hears, “Te Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered,”
so that he can open the scroll (5:5). But no lion appears. Instead, John sees a Lamb,
“standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6) who takes the scroll and eventually opens
it. To vulnerable huddles of Jesus followers, Revelation ofers not a Lion that might
devour their enemies but a Lamb that conquers by means of its faithful testimony. No
heavenly voice guides Revelation’s audience in sorting through these word pictures.
Apocalyptic argumentation includes narrative rhetoric, the use of plot and characterization to shape audience perception. Te Christian redaction of the Ascension of
Isaiah ofers fairly straightforward literary argumentation. Te great prophet Isaiah,
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 231
in a tour of the seven heavens, has seen the Beloved (Jesus) and recorded his vision
in writing. Te devil, who receives several names in the apocalypse, motivates the
evil king Manasseh to put a stop to the revelation by executing Isaiah. Moreover, the
people of Jerusalem participate in the prophet’s martyrdom (5:12) just as they will in
the death of Jesus (9:14; 11:19). By implicating the people of Jerusalem in the martyrdoms of both Isaiah and Jesus, the Ascension of Isaiah advances a familiar Christian
argument in story form. Isaiah testifed to Jesus, but the people rejected Isaiah just as
they would Jesus (Sawyer 1995). By implication Israel is responsible for its failure to
acknowledge Jesus.
We can learn a great deal about apocalyptic argumentation through attention to Paul’s secondary arguments. Paul was particularly adept at the enthymeme,
an argument that grounds its conclusion in two premises but leaves one of those
premises unstated. In the unstated premises we observe what Paul assumes on the
basis of received tradition. Space allows the brief exposition of just one example, 1
Tessalonians 4:14–16 (though see 1 Cor 15:12–23).
First Tessalonians 4:13 begins Paul’s word of comfort (4:18) concerning those
who have “fallen asleep” among the Tessalonian believers. Having expressed his
purpose—“that you may not grieve as others do”—Paul launches a sort of formal
argument in two stages (4:14–15, my translation).
Stage 1: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again [premise], even so God,
through Jesus, will bring with him those who have fallen asleep [conclusion].
Stage 2: For this we declare to you by a word of the Lord, that we who are living, who
remain until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have
fallen asleep [conclusion].
Stage 1 ofers a perfect example of an enthymeme. From the conviction that Jesus
rose again, Paul concludes that “those who have fallen asleep” will not miss out on
the resurrection. But what unstated premise justifes this conclusion? Most scholars
confdently assume the unstated premise involves the nature of resurrection. Every
contemporary reference to resurrection hope in Jewish literature imagines a general
resurrection in which all the righteous, and perhaps all persons, are raised together.
Paul assumes, and he expects the Tessalonians to assume, that Jesus’ resurrection
represents not the resurrection of a solitary individual but the beginning of a general
resurrection. Tat is why in other contexts he refers to Jesus’ resurrection as the “frst
fruits” (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:20, 23). In Stage 1 Paul relies upon unstated “common
knowledge” concerning the nature of resurrection.
But in Stage 2 we encounter a diferent kind of argument. Now Paul appeals to “a
word of the Lord.” While it is possible that Paul means he’s had an independent revelation, or “word from the Lord,” of his own, most commentators understand that he
is appealing to traditional teaching attributed to Jesus himself (see Fee 2009: 173–74).
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232 Greg Carey
In other words, while Stage 1 presents an enthymeme grounded in common assumptions about the resurrection, Stage 2 ofers an assertion based on secondary apocalyptic
Tis sampling demonstrates that apocalyptic argumentation extends far beyond
simple assertion and explication. It includes rhetography, recourse to visual symbols for persuasive ends (Robbins 2008), and literary techniques such as juxtaposition, plot development, and characterization. Apocalyptic authors also employed
the common rhetorical techniques of their day such as the enthymeme. We could
multiply examples, but the larger point is that apocalyptic rhetoric built upon diverse
argumentative resources.
Conclusion: Rhetorical Aims
We began this study with a survey of four very diferent early Christian apocalypses.
Not only do Revelation, Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Ascension of Isaiah
follow very diferent literary paths, they also seem to serve diverse functions. All
four documents seek to inspire faith in the face of potential persecution, but their
other concerns vary far and wide. Te other apocalypses hardly match Revelation’s
call for cultural resistance. Hermas stands apart for its concern with repentance,
the Apocalypse of Peter is noteworthy for its emphasis upon personal sins, and the
Ascension of Isaiah uniquely explores the theological question of the Incarnation and
Jewish-Christian relations (though see Rev 2:9–10; 3:9–10).
Even within Revelation, which addresses a specifc set of seven churches, we observe
multiple rhetorical aims. Te church at Ephesus receives both encouragement and
admonition (2:1–7); so do Pergamum (2:12–17) and Tyatira (2:19–29). Smyrna hears
some comfort mixed in with its exhortation (2:8–11), as does Philadelphia (3:7–13),
while Sardis (3:1–6) and Laodicea get a straight dose of admonition (3:14–22). Diverse
audiences, diverse rhetorical aims.
Early Christian apocalyptic rhetoric occurs in varied social contexts, employs a
wide range of argumentative resources, and serves diverse rhetorical functions. Te
Synoptic “little apocalypses” catechize their audiences, correcting premature anticipation and encouraging a blend of daily fdelity and eschatological watchfulness.
Paul can encourage the challenging path of celibacy because “the appointed time has
grown short” (1 Cor 7:29). In the same letter he can just as easily remind believers
to slow down: prior to Jesus’ return, they don’t know as much as they think they do
(13:8–12; see Meeks 1982). In short, apocalyptic discourse provided early Christians
with a rich set of resources for imagining the world, shaping opinion, and infuencing
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Early Christian Apocalyptic Rhetoric 233
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