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5 Tips for Reading Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible

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Apocalyptic literature is a challenging genre. In the Bible, we find this genre in the Book of Revelation and in the second half of Daniel.

There's also a lot of apocalyptic literature outside the Bible. It was a very popular genre during the Second Temple period (from 530 BC to 70 AD), and so we have a lot of examples of the purpose, form, and style of apocalyptic literature to inform our understanding of how it functions in Scripture.

Since it’s such a different style of writing than the gospels, epistles, or historical and theological writings we find elsewhere in the Bible, it’s important that we approach apocalyptic literature with a different perspective.

Here are 5 tips for reading apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation.

1. Pay attention to the symbolism

One thing to remember about apocalyptic literature is that it's highly symbolic, and part of the reason for that symbolism is to evoke emotion about the message. When you read apocalyptic literature, pay special attention to the symbolism and the emotions it’s intended to evoke.

2. Don’t forget the original audience

Another thing to remember about apocalyptic literature is that it's often encoded for the original audience. They would've read those symbols and understood what they referenced. For example, the mark of the beast might be the most well known symbol that's often misunderstood today. We're so far removed from that context, both in terms of time and in terms of culture, that a lot of this symbolism lost to us.

We can’t just transplant apocalyptic literature into our own cultural and historical setting. When we read it, we need to take into consideration what was happening at the time it was written.

Since apocalyptic literature is so closely tied to prophecy, it’s easy to read it as though the original author was speaking about our future, and insert our own ideas into the text. Avoid that temptation. If you’re going to read apocalyptic literature, it’s important to do some research about the setting it was written in and the people it was written to. Otherwise you risk missing the intended meaning entirely.

3. Don’t overanalyze the symbols

Similarly, since we know the writing is symbolic, it’s also easy to get lost in the details of each symbol. What creature did the author envision? How many parts does it have? Which parts are identified? Many of these details certainly have meaning, some of which we can still make reasonable inferences about (based on what we know of the original context).

4. Think about the writing’s purpose

When you first approach a piece of apocalyptic writing, try to focus on the emotions that its images evoke. In Daniel 7, for example, Daniel sees a great sea, and from the sea emerge four terrifying creatures. Before you ever try to figure out what the creatures might represent, try to place yourself in Daniel's shoes and imagine the horror of what he's seen, because that's a large part of what the literature was trying to accomplish.

Another purpose of the literature was to encourage people who were oppressed. This literature was written to an audience that was suffering as a way to give them hope that their enemies would be conquered at some point, and both victory and better days were ahead for them.

5. Bring a guide

Symbolism is one of the main things that makes apocalyptic literature so unique. It also makes apocalyptic literature notoriously challenging to read and understand. Instead of wading into it alone, you can stand on the backs of Bible scholars and draw from centuries of analysis done by some of the church’s best theologians.

Today's post is adapted from material found in Wendy L. Widder's video lectures on the book of Daniel.

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