Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is Apocalyptic a Subset of Eschatology?

Pat McCullough asks:
"Is there really such a thing as non-apocalyptic eschatology and what does it look like? In his ABD article on it, Paul Hanson creates a dichotomy between apocalyptic eschatology and prophetic eschatology. Is this valid?"
I replied in comments that I think for "eschatology" to remain useful, it should refer generally to what it traditionally has: final dramatic events in history. I think scholarship has allowed the term too much elasticity, especially in the wake of John Dominic Crossan, who seized on the term "world-negation" (by which Schweitzer meant eschatology) and said it could apply to virtually anything -- apocalypticism, sappientialism (wisdom), nihilism, mysticism, etc. When we broaden our terms so that they mean almost anything, in a sense they mean nothing, so I would object to making apocalypticism a radical subset of eschatology in this way, even if the terms may not be precisely synonymous.

In Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, Dale Allison uses eschatology to refer to "history's consummation and events directly associated with it", and apocalyptic to designate "a cluster of eschatological themes and expectations -- cosmic cataclysm, resurrection of the dead, universal judgment, heavenly redeemer figures, etc." -- that became fully realized in post-exilic Judaism (p 34, n 103, n 104). If we look at it this way, apocalyptic is simply Judeo-Christian eschatology. In this sense, it is a subset of eschatology, but not in the trivial manner proposed by someone like Crossan.

So to answer Pat's question, I think there is plenty of non-apocalyptic eschatology when you move out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But for biblical studies specialists who stay focused within this tradition, the terms "apocalyptic" and "eschatological" are often used closely, if not synonymously. I tend to use them interchangeably. While the former may not be ideally suited for the pre-exilic period when certain themes were in gestation, I would never make a rigid distinction between "apocalyptic" and "prophetic" eschatology.


Anonymous Ken said...

In my take on these things, apocalyptic refers to a type of genre or intellectual thought in which mundane or earthly events are described in cosmological/astronomical terms. Apocalyptic literature, therefore, can be about the past, present, or future. Eschatology, on the other hand, is the study of the end of history or the last things. To me, at least, there is a very significant difference between the two.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for this, Ken. "Apocalyptic" is evidently a slippery term, and if used the way you describe it would indeed be different from eschatology.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for following up on this, Loren. I agree with your thoughts on Crossan and I admire the approach of Allison as you have mentioned you do as well. I feel like there may be different sorts of eschatology in early Judaism and Christianity, but I can't quite put my finger on the distinction yet. I agree that prophetic and apocalyptic may be too simple a line to draw.

Blogger Jason A. Staples said...

I would agree with Ken that apocalypticism (apocalyptic being an adjective) is a mode of thinking, making it distinct. Part of the slippage in usage has been the result of a collapse of terms (apocalypticism, apocalyptic, apocalypse) that are not all exactly the same in technical usage. If we would do a better job keeping these terms distinct, I think the answer w/respect to eschatology would be clearer.

A related issue that I have been protesting for a while is that apocalypticism as a world view does not require an "immanent" eschatology; Ehrman and I have gone back and forth some on this, with one of my primary examples being the (admittedly rare) modern post-tribulation dispensationalists among Evangelicals. This runs counter to many assumptions about early apocalyptic Judaism/Christianity, but I'm convinced it's simply not an integral component of apocalyptic thought, which would further distance apocalypticism from eschatology.

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