Post Two: History of Apocalypticism

Having chosen an appropriate paradigm of biological study (MLS), I have moved on to exploring the history of apocalypticism. As I have learned, the easiest manner of articulating this complex tradition is through a discussion of three similar but distinct terms: apocalypse, apocalyptic eschatology, and apocalypticism. Religious scholars such as John J. Collins and Paul D. Hanson have done much work to clearly define these terms, making them valuable heuristic tools for modern scholarship. It should be noted, however, that in the ancient world there would have been no clear distinction between the three.

Apocalypse is literary genre that centers on the revelation of heavenly secrets in visionary form to a seer for the benefit of a religious community that is or perceives itself to be suffering. The Apocalypse of John, exemplifies this definition especially well, centering on John’s journey into heaven and his subsequent vision of the end. Further, as Professor John J. Collins notes, “an apocalypse is intended to interpret present, earthly circumstances in the light of the supernatural world and of the future, and to influence both the understanding and the behavior of the audience by means of divine authority.” Thus, an apocalypse is a piece of literature that speaks to a troubled audience and attempts to allay their fears by recommending a theologically derived course of action.

A piece of apocalyptic writing normally expresses a religious perspective known as “apocalyptic eschatology.” Eschatology, the study of “end-time” events, generally describes a future time when the adverse conditions of the present world will come to an end. For example, it was conventional Jewish wisdom, that the righteous, those who adhered to Jewish law and lived a moral life, would be vindicated, while the wicked would be punished. However, as their oppression persisted and the wicked continued to succeed, it became increasingly obvious that this was not occurring. Thus, an apocalyptic eschatology eventually developed that stated that the righteous would be vindicated and the wicked would be punished in an age to come. Professor Paul D. Hanson, though, characterized this ideology best, describing it as a dualistic religious perspective that expected the destruction of this world and the resurrection of the faithful in the next. An emphasis here must be placed on the word dualistic, as believers expected this event – the eschaton – to occur suddenly. So, while an “apocalypse” is a literary genre, an “apocalyptic eschatology” is an expressed religious perspective about the end of this age.

Together, apocalyptic writing and eschatology hint at the existence of a distinct worldview known as “apocalypticism.” Unlike, writings or religious beliefs, apocalypticism designates an actual population of adherents. For instance, as Hanson describes it, “apocalypticism” is a community or movement embodying an apocalyptic perspective as its ideology. Thus, to return to the Apocalypse of John as an example, the writing itself is an “apocalypse,” its expressed religious perspective is an “apocalyptic eschatology,” and the community of devoted followers who heard and adopted its words as their ideology represent a portion of the movement known as “apocalypticism.” However, it is impossible to prove definitively that any group completely adopted the ideology espoused by the Apocalypse of John. For this reason, my discussion will remain theoretical, concentrating only on the possible sociobiological the text offers.

After immersing myself in the history and terminology of apocalypticism, I conducted a thorough reading of the Apocalypse of John, itself. The contained ideology champions two cultural adaptations that may have allowed early Christians to succeed in the years following the First Jewish revolt. These cultural adaptations are as follows: First, an expectation of an imminent eschaton that provided strong social controls for the continuance of cooperative behavior. And second, an emphasis placed on passive endurance, rather than on violent resistance, that provided early Christians with a stable evolutionary strategy for survival. It will now be my goal to apply MLS to these two potential cultural adaptations and tease out any possible soiobiological benefits.

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