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Apocalypticism in Luke? Part III

August 25, 2010

For the dynamic memories of the Lukan community to convey meaning to its constituent members the memories would have to operate in certain cognitive frameworks. As the salient past functioned in the community through commemoration there would be cognitive schemata and nuclear scripts which would have achieved secure status and were important for “interpreting and processing streams of experience.”[1] For the Lukan community some of the texts that eventually became the HB were used to provide the framework for cognition and for interpretation of their experience of the present through the remembering past. However, it may be that other sacred texts and history also functioned in a similar manner.

Dynamic memories commemorated in texts to meet the present needs of a community means that Luke was neither authored nor read in a vacuum.  Every written text is created by a communicating mind[2] in direct relation with their larger interpersonal world; every written text is read by an interpreting mind. According to Heidegger, interpretation is characterized by three things: fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception.  These three elements along with preunderstanding, and a large collection of presuppositions, all become part of a fore-structure that affects the interpretation of any reader.[3] This fore-structure is valuable because without it, and a set of shared assumptions between author and reader, communication would be almost impossible.

Modern readers of biblical texts have many presuppositions as to how to read the Bible that are affected by their theology, the language they speak, and their worldview (to name but a few).  Ancient readers and interpreters also had many presuppositions and a fore-structure developed by their location in the world, their religion, and certain interpretations of sacred texts.  When these ancient readers and interpreters wrote letters and texts of their own, the fore-structure that allowed them to read texts in a certain way then influenced how they choose to communicate in some of the letters and texts they composed.

An important element to consider in the fore-structure of the author of Luke, and the memory construction of his community, may be an apocalyptic worldview as it was so influential during the Second Temple period for many Jewish groups. This apocalyptic fore-structure would be apparent for texts such as the Messianic Apocalypse or Daniel, however, if a text is obviously not apocalyptic in its formal generic expression the question can be asked: could the apocalyptic worldview influence the writing of an author such as Luke even if that author was not writing an apocalypse?

Currently, scholars distinguish between “apocalypse as a literary genre, apocalypticism as a social ideology, and apocalyptic eschatology as a set of ideas and motifs that also can be found in other literary genres and social settings;”[4] therefore, a community may be identified as “apocalyptic” if it shares the conceptual framework of the genre even if there is a large generic difference, i.e., a text can display “apocalypticism.” It should be noted that the apocalyptic worldview was not the only construction of reality in its time, but it was a pervasive way of understanding the world for many Second Temple Jews; therefore, I shall briefly outline apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature before suggesting points of contact with Luke.

The most significant question the apocalyptic worldview attempted to answer, and which ultimately shaped the unique way it answered, was the problem of evil in the world.  One of the prevailing competing theories at the time argued that divine blessing and salvation would only be granted to those that kept the Law.[5] It was assumed in that worldview that if one saw good fortune the covenant was being kept, and if one saw misfortune some prior fault had occurred.  But what if a group of Jews felt they were observing the Law and misfortune kept occurring to them?  Basically, what the apocalyptic worldview suggested was that the problem of evil originated not from human inability to do right in this world, but evil came from outside of the human realm: divine beings were the cause of all the evil—and the solution.[6] Major characteristics of this apocalyptic worldview were:

  1. The role that supernatural agents play in human affairs
  2. The expectation of an eschatological judgment
  3. The expectation of reward or punishment beyond death
  4. The perception that something was wrong with the world[7]

Koch also suggests eights “motifs” of apocalypticism: 1) urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future 2) the end as a cosmic catastrophe 3) periodization and determinism 4) activity of angels and demons 5) new salvation, paradisal in character 6) manifestation of the kingdom of God 7) a mediator with royal functions 8 ) the catchword “glory.”[8] If many of these characteristics or motifs are found in a literary work that is not apocalyptic in genre then perhaps we should consider the possibility that a text might not be “apocalyptic” and yet still share many of the conceptual frameworks of the genre.

It is in no way the purpose of these posts to suggest that Luke is apocalyptic in genre, in that the apocalyptic genre is “revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”[9] However, I would suggest that the ideological and conceptual framework of apocalypticism that was sometimes expressed formally in apocalyptic genre could also be expressed in the memory of a community, and ultimately mirrored in Luke. The difficulty in demonstrating this theory is that “apocalypticism” is often not as literarily obvious as heavenly trips mediated by divine beings in the apocalyptic genre. Perhaps a modern analogy would be profitable: Modern sermons on Daniel or Revelation do not themselves take the form of the apocalyptic genre even though, often, the explication of them are a direct result of apocalypticism. But do we find this in Luke?

I will attempt to demonstrate in upcoming posts some ways in which possibly the Lukan community was apocalyptic in their worldview—at some point— and how this understanding of reality greatly affected the way in which they remembered Jesus and the significance they commemorated from his life and death. Before that, perhaps a quick overview of Jesus’ life as presented by Luke may be beneficial at this point.

  • The birth of Jesus is foretold by a supernatural being
  • Jesus is supernaturally born of a virgin
  • Supernatural beings appear in the sky and sing praises at this birth
  • Jesus is presented in the Temple and is the fulfillment of Simeon’s revelation from the πνεύματος τοῦ ἁγίου
  • Jesus is baptized and the Spirit descends on him
  • Jesus defeats ὁ διάβολος in the wilderness
  • Jesus demonstrates power over evil spirits
  • Jesus’ supernatural ministry with signs and wonders
  • Jesus’ crucifixion, the resurrection
  • Angels at Jesus’ tomb
  • Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his followers including, apparently, Jesus’ post-death ability to appear, disappear and camouflage himself
  • Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven.

Perhaps our opinion of Luke as ‘historian’ has skewed our perception of the story he actually tells. In Luke’s portrayal of Jesus one will find many of the characteristics and motifs of apocalypticism: the possibility of an imminent parousia (12:35-40; 17:20-37; 18:8; 21:5-36);[10] the activity of angels and demons; periodization of history (more on this in another post); new salvation; expectation of reward or punishment after death; and the catchword glory (13 times, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” 21:27; “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” 24:26). Therefore, even in the briefest of overviews, general aspects of apocalypticism are observable; it is to more specific apocalyptic commemorations in Luke 3-7 that we will turn to in the next few posts.


[1] Kirk and Thatcher, “Social and Cultural Memory,” 15.

[2] W. Randoph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 196.

[3] Ibid, 187.

[4] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2-14.

[5] Paolo Sacchi, Jewish Apocalyptic and Its History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 80; Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, 11-12.

[6] Ibid, 79-85.

[7] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 171.

[8] Klaus Koch, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic (Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1972), 28-33; Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, 12.

[9] John J. Collins et al. eds., Semeia 14 (Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature, 1979), 62.

[10] Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 34.

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