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"Chapter 13: The Apocalyptic Books"


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Did ancient astronauts from another planet visit the Hebrews in Old Testament times? Arriving in "chariots of the gods," did they enjoy deluding the earthlings into thinking that they were gods? Is this the origin of the marvels in the Old Testament? Some today are foolish enough to believe such things.

In Daniel, we read this description of what he saw: "As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened" (7:9-10).

"See," say some misguided moderns, "there you have a description of a spaceship. The stream of fire was the rocket exhaust."

Yet, the answer is very simple. We must investigate the literary genre of such scriptural passages. In Daniel there are two genres. One, the edifying narrative, was discussed in chapter 9. All Scripture scholars agree that the visions, such as the one just quoted, are examples of a very bizarre genre called apocalyptic.

The Apocalyptic genre is special to the ancient Jews. Its fully developed form first appears in the second century B.C. and had a run of about four centuries. The chief characteristics of the genre are these: (1) authorship is anonymous, or the author is given a fictitious name: (2) the genre tells of dreams and visions; (3) it includes prophecies, often made after the event; (4) it employs colorful, even extremely bizarre imagery; (5) it professes to contain esoteric things, secrets not known by most people.

Apocalyptic genre was first developed for the purpose of consolation in time of great stress. The Book of Daniel was intended as a consolation to console the Jews during the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria (reigned 175-164 B.C.). Antiochus tried to get the Jews to abandon their religion. The persecution was part of his program of Hellenization, the purpose of which was to unify his sprawling empire. Many Jews gave in; others became martyrs; still others, the Maccabees, took to military resistance.

Just as modern readers of a historical novel know better than to think the fictional fill-ins are history, the ancient Jews also knew well how to interpret the genres of their culture. They knew they must discount the extremely colorful imagery to get the sober content. Even today, any attentive reader should be able to see that there is no spaceship in the Book of Daniel. Reread the quotation, and ask whether, if taken to the letter, it really describes a spaceship. The "chariots of the gods" people focus on one point and overlook the others.

Go back and read the earlier part of chapter 7 of Daniel, which tells of four great beasts that came out of the sea. One was like a lion with eagle's wings. Daniel saw its wings torn off: "it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it." Clearly we are not dealing with a spaceship here!

"And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear," says Daniel 7:5. "It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth.... I looked and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads." Then he saw a fourth beast with great iron teeth, and it had ten horns. Daniel saw "among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things."

Right after this comes the throne scene, after which Daniel is given the interpretation of the strange beasts. They are four kings. The ten horns are kings of the Seleucid dynasty. Antiochus gets power by getting rid of several claimants, other horns. He is the horn that speaks boastfully.

All of these images are miles away from being a spaceship! Chapter 8 of Daniel also presents visions of strange beasts, and an explanation. Still more bizarre images and visions come in chapters 9-12. Notes in the Jerusalem Bible and the American Bible explain many of the symbols. In chapter 12, we seem to have a case of multiple fulfillment (see our chapter 5).

In chapter 5 we also mentioned briefly some scriptural passages earlier than Daniel in which there is extreme imagery. Let us look at them more fully now to see how vivid were the imaginations of some of these Jewish writers.

In chapter 1 of Ezekiel the prophet, probably written in Babylonia during the exile, not long after 597 B.C., we get a very bizarre description of the throne of God. Ezekiel saw four animals of human form, and "each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight and the soles of their feet were like the soles of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands." Here Ezekiel probably borrowed some of the strange imagery from Assyrian cherubs he had seen in Babylon.

Ezekiel adds, beginning with 1 :15, "Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.... When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. The four wheels had rims ... and their rims were full of eyes round about.... Over the head of the living creatures there was the likeness of a firmament.... And under the firmament their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another; and each creature had two wings covering its body.... And above the firmament ... there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upwards from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were gleaming bronze ... and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was a brightness round about him, like the appearance of a bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain..." This was the throne of God.

Now let anyone who wishes try to take all this at face value as a description of a spaceship. It simply does not work. It is a forerunner of Daniel's imagery.

Still other extremely colorful imagery is found in Ezekiel 32:7-8, telling of the coming divine judgment against Pharaoh: "When I blot you out. I will cover the heavens' and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness in your land." (Compare Matthew 24:29-31.)

Still earlier imagery of the same kind occurs in Isaiah 13:10, foretelling the destruction of Babylon: "For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light." More of the same appears in God's judgment on Edom, in Isaiah 34:4:"AII the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll."

Still earlier roots of such highly imaginative word paintings appear in Psalm 18:6-15, which seems to picture David giving thanks for his rescue from Saul, in very much overdone language: "In my distress I called upon the Lord.... From his temple he heard my voice.... Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled.... He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub, and flew.... The Lord also thundered in the heavens.... He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water.... The Lord also thundered in the heavens.... And he sent out his arrows. and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare, at thy rebuke, O Lord."

The more sober picture can be seen in I and 2 Samuel, telling of David's dangers and rescue. In 2 Samuel 22, David sings almost the identical thanksgiving. (God riding on the cherubim is pictured also in Psalm 80:1 and 99:1. Ezekiel 10:20 explicitly identifies the animals of chapter I as cherubs.)

By now one can see most clearly what folly it is to take these descriptions as spaceships. Those who think that way should look at all the images involved. And, of course, we have absolute evidence, independent of the Old Testament, for our God, which was summarized in chapter 2 of this book.

The last book of the New Testament is called, in Greek Apocalypsis, which means "Revelation." There is no doubt that it is a strong example of the apocalyptic genre. Modern commentators, however, show two quite different tendencies in treating it. Some so stress the apocalyptic genre, insisting that it is a book of consolation for all times, as to almost, if not entirely, ignore the prophetic character of some parts, that is, it contains predictions of the future. Others strongly stress the predictive aspect, some in a fundamentalistic way. The Church has said very little on the content of this book. However, there are two points on which we do have some guidance.

First, there was a millenarian or chiliastic theory, in the first centuries, which was held even by some of the Fathers of the Church, but not by enough of them to give us a proof that the theory was divinely revealed.

More precisely, there were three chief forms of this chiliasm. All started from a misunderstanding of chapter 20 of Revelation, which speaks of two resurrections: first of the just; then, of the wicked. The just were to reign with Christ on earth for a thousand years before the second resurrection.

The gross, or extreme, theory held that the just would enjoy immoderate sensory pleasures in this interval. Eusebius, in Church History 3:28, tells us the heretic Cerinthus, late first century, held this.

The moderate form of the theory held that the just would have sensory pleasure, but in a moderate form. Eusebius 3:39 tells us an example of this theory found in Papias, who influenced later writers.

The mild form of the theory held that the just would enjoy spiritual pleasures. St. Justin the Martyr, in Dialogue with Trypho, 80, seems to hold this view; so does St. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, 5.32.1. St. Augustine, in City of God, 20:7, says that he once held this (see his Sermon 259).

St. Augustine himself, City of God, 20:7-9, gives an interpretation of this part of Revelation that is widely accepted by scholars today. He says the thousand years stand for all the time from the departure of Christ at His Ascension to His return at the end, except for the brief period of the Antichrist just before the end. The just will reign during this period in that they have mastery over their own sensory desires. Otherwise, instead of reigning, they would be slaves.

In modern times a mitigated form of millenarianism was rejected by the Holy Office in a decision of July 21, 1944: "What is to be thought of the system of mitigated millenarianism which holds that Christ the Lord would come to reign visibly on this earth with or without a previous resurrection of many just persons? Reply: The system of mitigated millenarianism cannot be safely taught."

The Church has had somewhat more to say about the marvelous vision at the start of Revelation 12: "And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth. in anguish for delivery."

A huge red dragon then appears with seven heads and ten horns. Its tail drags a third of the stars out of the sky, then it stands before the woman ready to devour her child when it would be born. Revelation continues: "she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand, two hundred and sixty days."

Some features fit the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The male child who rules with the iron scepter refers to Psalm 2:9, which speaks of Christ. The child is taken up to the throne of God. Other features fit the Church, and not Mary: the pain in childbirth. St. Pius X (Ad diem illum, February 2, 1904: Acta Sanctae Sedis 36:458-459) wrote: "No one is ignorant of the fact that that woman signifies the Virgin Mary who, remaining a virgin, brought forth our Head.... So John saw the most Holy Mother of God already enjoying eternal happiness, and yet laboring from some hidden birth. With what birth? Surely ours, we who, being yet detained in exile, are still to be brought forth to the perfect love of God and eternal happiness."

Paul VI, in Signum Magnum (May 13, 1967), wrote: "The great sign that the Apostle John saw in heaven, 'a woman clothed with the sun,' is interpreted by the sacred liturgy, not without foundation, as referring to the most blessed Mary, the mother of all men by the grace of Christ, the Redeemer."

Bernard J. Le Frois, S.V.D., in a remarkable study, The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Orbis Catholicus, Roma, 1954), suggests that we really have an established Semitic pattern in this passage, in which an individual stands for, and even embodies, a collectivity. Thus the woman would be Mary individually. She would stand for the Church. Le Frois further suggests that this could be a prophecy, that near the end the Church would take on a specially Marian character, resulting in a sort of age of Mary.

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