Robert J. Daly (ed.), Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity. Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 303. ISBN 9780801036279. $32.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Oleh Kindiy, Ukrainian Catholic University …
The present volume is the second book in the series of the Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History, edited by Robert J. Daly. It is comprised of fourteen individual papers each dedicated to early Christian authors, theological themes, and iconographies of early Christian perceptions of the Apocalypse.
The first article is by Theodore Stylianopoulos. The key theological concept is erga (the works) as found in Revelation and interpreted by, and compared to, the grace theology of Paul. Stylianopoulos contends that Paul moved in the direction of distinguishing moral and ritual commandments, and gave a priority to the former. The concept of erga in John’s Revelation should not be perceived as a formal principle of salvation. Revelation presents grace and judgment as two sides of the same reality, whereas for Paul righteousness or justice (dikaiosynē) has not only a judicial aspect, but also God’s saving activity that furnishes the new creation in Christ.
The second and longest article is by John Herrmann and Annewies van den Hoek. It discusses how literary texts of Revelation, Ezekiel, and the “synoptic apocalypse” influenced early Christian art. We find here a detailed description of literary sources and artworks, their backgrounds and pre-Christian prototypes, as well as several trends that can be traced from the evidence of the early Christian apocalyptic iconography (the A and Ω, the lamb on Mount Zion, Christ coming through the clouds and the traditio legis, the heavenly Jerusalem and Bethlehem, palm trees and Ezekiel, the Son of Man in heaven and the four living creatures, saints offering their crowns to Christ, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, the seven candelabra, the Virgin Mary in an “apocalyptic” ascension et al. ). Helpful are illustrations for each image and theme (although there are slight oversights in the inscriptions for the Fig. 2.21b. New Bethlehem instead of New Jerusalem; in Fig. 2.44. Second coming, it is a part of the wooden doors in St. Sabina, Rome).
Bernard McGinn begins his exploration with anecdotes on apocalyptic topics of Alfred N. Whitehead and George Bernard Shaw and turns to the origins of eschatological controversies of the first Christian centuries. He traces the story of the inclusion of John’s Apocalypse in the NT canon and discusses patristic authors like Justin, Melito of Sardis, Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, Eusebius, Methodius, and Bishop Victorinus of Poetovio, who read it and extracted theological concepts from it. Some took Revelation’s messages literally in chiliastic theories, Gnostics rejected them altogether, yet the Alexandrians and their followers allegorized them and secured the baseline for the mainstream reading of the Apocalypse in ensuing centuries.
Brian Daley considers how the theology of parousia in Revelation and other New Testament texts which have an eschatological cast, influenced the formation of early Christian dogma. As the original Jewish and Judeo-Christian expectation of the end of time was relaxed in the second and third centuries, eschatological themes were reinterpreted in the wider context of an emerging orthodox consensus transferring eschatological dynamism to Christian dogmatic concepts. Irenaeus conceives what Daley calls an apocalyptic cosmology, which presents Irenaeus’ large-scale vision of history, where the biblical story ends with “a real establishment [planatio]” of God’s reign (AH 5.36.1) (p. 117). Irenaeus develops his apocalyptic cosmology also on the level of christology, and this tradition was picked up later by Hippolytus and Origen, for whom apocalyptic language became “a central part of the Bible’s way of revealing Christ in symbols that call for figural interpretation” (p. 121). Eventually, christological concepts found their application in the apocalyptic ecclesiology espoused by Origen, Victorinus, Andrew of Caesarea, and Maximus the Confessor.
Gragoş-Andrei Giulea delves into modern debates over the origins of the text of In Sanctum Pascha and contends with the latest scholarship that it belongs to an unknown Asian author, who synthesized ancient paschal celebrations, apocalyptic language, and mystery language. The heavenly temple of In Sanctum Pascha becomes a locus of the cosmic liturgy, which celebrates Pascha with Christ’s luminous body at the center of a beatific vision. The eschatological topic is fueled by mystery language in ps.-Hippolytus. However, this was not an exclusive case in early Christian literature, an emphasis that seems to have been overdone by Giulea.
A study of Jewish apocalyptic themes in early Christian christology and pneumatology is found in the article by Bogdan Bucur. He demonstrates that the pneumatological link between angels, prophets, and apostles is a theme adopted from an older Jewish tradition. Together with important Judeo-Christian concepts like “face,” “name,” “wisdom,” or “glory,” the spiritual hierarchy was supersede by a more precise vocabulary of the third and fourth centuries. Bucur’s main witnesses, who represent diverse milieus but echo earlier Jewish apocalyptic language, are Clement of Alexandria, Aphrahat, and the seven spirits of the book of Revelation.
J.A.Cerrato in his somewhat oversimplified article turns to the apocalyptic thought of Hippolytus and compares it to the baptismal homilies of Cyril of Jerusalem. He traces the origins of Hippolytus’s concept of Antichrist and the social fears linked to it in Asia Minor’s political and social circumstances. The teaching about Antichrist was most expected and used as part of catechetical material and could have belonged to disciplina arcani as part of the curriculum for those who were preparing to enter, or had just joined, the Christian community. Hence, Hippolytus’ On Antichrist must be seen as baptismal catechetical instruction. Cerrato finds proof for this in Cyril’s catechetical homilies, which also dealt with fears and learning and provided positive hope for the life in Christ.
In the eighth article, Ute Possekel looks at what role apocalyptic traditions played for the earliest Syriac-speaking Christians. She analyses Syriac sources from before the middle of the third century, such as the works of Bardaisan, the Odes of Solomon, and the Acts of Thomas and finds that they barely contain a developed apocalyptic imagery. This may derive, as Possekel rightly concludes, from the specific political situation of Syriac Christianity in Edessa, which found itself between two empires, neither of which was perceived as good or evil, or due to a more rationalized inclination of early Syriac authors towards Revelation through the prism of wisdom literature.
Alexander Golitzin discusses how apocalyptic metaphors influenced the development of the articulation of mystical experience in the early period of the monastic practice. He analyzes texts of Aphrahat and Macarius as interacting with the contemporaneous Jewish mystical tradition of merkavah. Both authors are eager to embark on a spiritual ascending journey to God. However, this ascent was indeed not only a way up, but also a step ad intra, which was a direct imitation of the apocalyptic solution of the Second Temple Judaism amplified by the eschatological enthusiasm stirred by the Christ-event.
John McGuckin clarifies patristic eschatological terminology and inscribes it in the category of oikonomia (God’s interaction with creation), rather than of theologia (reflection on God’s life). For the Cappadocians, however, eschatology also apophatically reveals the nature of God. Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa followed Origen’s two doctrines of the afterlife (all creation must be saved and only the saints will be with God in the end). For the bishop of Nazianzus “soteriology is eschatological throughout” (p. 204), and for the other Gregory “the incarnation is not merely an individual assumption of flesh, considered as a historical moment but is rather an eschatological process, a timeless moment of a soteriological “re-principling” (anakephalaiōsis) of the race” (p. 206).
An illuminating journey to the underworld is presented by Georgia Frank, who begins with the striking observation that, according to the vast body of Eastern Mediterranean literature, the paths to the underworld had become well trodden in antiquity before Christ descended there. Thus, the story of Christ’s preaching “to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19), which resonated in early Christian poetry as his descent to Hades (in Odes of Solomon, Gospel of Nicodemus, and the kontakia of Romanos the Melodist) was, according to Frank, the discovery of early Christians of how they could sing about hell with Jesus as their guide.
Lorenzo DiTommaso surveys the chief issues in the study of the Daniel apocalyptica, which only recently received serious attention from modern scholars. DiTommaso redefines an “apocalypse” as a genre and adds to it apocalyptic oracles and testaments. Written in the post-Nicene and Byzantine period, these texts assure audiences that history is under God’s control. Some compositions do depend on the Greek Apocalypse of Daniel, but most of them, against the standard view, absorbed contemporaneous phobias and beliefs of a later period independently, reflecting political tensions and fears of Islamic invasion.
Resonating with Golitzin’s reading of Aphrahat and Macarius, Elijah Mueller approaches apocalyptic motives in John Damascene, for whom “mysticism” is “vertical” apocalypticism. John’s defense of icons by incarnation theology requires the mystical vision of Christ in the liturgical experience. The angelic iconography of the angelomorphic Word of God allows its physical and spiritual vision as God’s Image. Such eyesight transforms into gradual ascent on the ladder of moral perfection to the hypostatic unity with God.
In her concluding article, Nancy Patterson Ševčenko deals with the iconography of the Last Judgment, which has only appeared in Byzantium since the ninth century. With helpful illustrations and a detailed analysis of complex compositions, Ševčenko shows how the scenes of punishment appear as a dire warning to the greater public, especially to the political elite. Ševčenko seems to be perhaps less interested in theological meanings as in artistic compositions of the Last Judgment iconography, which reflects the highly-structured Byzantine world, thus she concludes that it does not imply that the entry to paradise is an option to be waited for until the end of time, but an invitation for the present.
The volume is not an attempt to present a comprehensive study of the apocalyptic thought of early Christianity. Rather, individual contributions draw bits and pieces of the large picture of the early Christian eschatological sensitivity. Overall, the papers are uneven not so much in quality and length, although this does vary somewhat, but in terms of approach and goals, distinctions which might have benefited from further explanation in the introduction. As a group, the essays clearly demonstrate that the apocalyptic literature typically associated with parousia is a complex reality of the present and future, in which early Christians lived intensely.