Reviewed by Chad Hardy
Richard A. Taylor is Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies and Director of the PhD Program at Dallas Theological Seminary. This book is part of Kregel’s series Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. As set out in the series preface, these volumes are intended to help readers better understand the genres of literature found in the Bible, and to provide strategies for preaching and teaching the biblical texts that belong to these genres. The series is aimed at graduate-level (i.e., seminary) students, pastors, upper-level college students and well-motivated laypeople. The emphasis on preaching and teaching shows that the goal of the series is ecclesial as well as academic. Taylor himself lists the following four purposes for this installment on apocalyptic literature: (1) to summarize “the main features, themes, origins, development, and purpose of Jewish apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple Period”; (2) to situate “Old Testament apocalyptic literature within the broader context of ancient apocalyptic thought by analyzing its relationship to similar extra biblical writings”; (3) to offer “guidelines that should inform interpretation of apocalyptic literature”; and (4) to provide “a sample treatment of two Old Testament apocalyptic texts” (22).
Each book in the series follows the same six-chapter format. The first chapter is meant as an introduction to the genre. Taylor notes that this genre flourished primarily during the Second Temple Period, and notes that it is distinguished by its “visions and dreams [that] are not immediately clear and understandable,” as well as its “seemingly impenetrable mysteries, puzzling symbolism, startling predictions, and foreboding announcements” (23). However, he also notes the problems that surround the definition of the term and the genre. Scholars have used the term rather loosely since the eighteenth century. Taylor supports the definition of apocalypse developed by the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Genres Project, which requires a revelation mediated to a person by an otherworldly being, disclosing eschatological salvation and the metaphysical world. At the same time, Taylor uses the broader term “apocalyptic literature” to include both apocalypses and “related literature that shares certain characteristics with the apocalypse without qualifying for that more specific label” (34).
The second chapter is meant to provide an overview of the biblical books that belong to the genre, providing their purpose, message and primary themes. In the case of apocalyptic, however, only Daniel qualifies. Thus Taylor seeks to identify the features and major themes of apocalyptic literature more broadly. He still provides a detailed discussion of Daniel, but he then proceeds to more brief discussions of “apocalyptic elements” in the other OT prophets, of the fourteen intertestamental works that qualify as apocalypses according to the SBL definition, and of apocalyptic literature at Qumran. The six characteristic features of apocalyptic literature that Taylor identifies are literary expression, revelatory content, dreams and visions, pseudonymous authorship, hiddenness and secrecy, and pervasive symbolism. The seven major themes he finds are developed angelology, ethical dualism, deterministic outlook, imminent crisis, faithful remnant, divine judgment, and eschatological hope.
The third chapter prepares the reader for interpretation of the genre by discussing critical questions and providing annotated bibliographies for further research. Taylor focuses on five areas for interpreting apocalyptic literature: figurative language (he discusses five figures of speech), learning from reception history (he advises not to make the same mistakes as past interpreters), textual criticism, working with the original languages (recognizing that Daniel has Aramaic portions), and benefiting from previous research. In each case, Taylor provides annotated bibliographies to assist the reader.
The fourth chapter provides guidelines for interpreting texts in the genre under consideration. Thus Taylor takes us through the exegetical process, employing the grammatical-historical method, identifying the genre, paying attention to where the text interprets itself (for example, when the angel interprets a vision for the reader), focusing on the macrostructure, recognizing figures of speech, and respecting the silence of the text. He also points out pitfalls to avoid with regard to apocalyptic literature, such as ignoring these texts altogether, overconfidence in one’s interpretations, manipulation of texts to fit preconceived interpretations, and the making of prophetic timetables.
The fifth chapter is meant to provide strategies for teaching and preaching the text. Taylor discusses the need for bridging the historical and contemporary contexts and then outlines the process of moving from exegesis to sermon by getting familiar with the text, resolving difficulties, clarifying the structure of the passage, summarizing the main points, making the homiletical outline, paying attention to other interpreters, and applying the text to the contemporary life situation.
The final chapter is meant to provide examples of the interpretive process to the reader. Taylor provides examples of working from text to sermon for Daniel 8 and Joel 2:28-32, though no sermon or lesson plan is included.
Also included in the book is an appendix on the origins of apocalyptic literature. Here Taylor reviews various theories that have been proffered, and though he sees some truth to many of them, he believes the central foundation of the genre lies in the biblical prophetic literature.
Taylor largely succeeds in achieving the purposes that he set out in his opening pages. He does provide an adequate introduction to the main features, themes, and origins of apocalyptic literature. His appendix on origins is indeed perhaps the best chapter in the volume. The annotated bibliographies in chapter 3 are helpful, especially the one on preaching apocalyptic literature. Taylor provides good explanations for the exegetical process and he offers particularly good advice when he says that we should learn from the mistakes of previous exegetes and respect the silence of the text, especially important points for contemporary interpreters who might wish the Bible says more than it does.
Nevertheless, I hesitate to recommend this book, at least as a whole. It seems to me that unless one is trying to teach the exegetical process from Daniel that much of this book will be redundant. For example, the guidelines in chapter 3 to recognize figurative language, to learn from reception history, to do textual criticism, to work in the original languages, and to read secondary literature are all common to the exegesis of any text, not just apocalyptic literature. Similarly, in chapter 4, Taylor’s guidelines lack much specificity to the genre. Although paying attention to the macrostructure and respecting the silence of the text may have heightened importance in this genre, they are nonetheless essential in interpreting other genres as well. A student who has read any other basic introduction to exegesis, such as Doug Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis, Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, or William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, is going to find chapters 3 and 4 to offer little of interest to them, except in way of review. Similarly, much of the fifth chapter, on moving from text to sermon, will be redundant to students who have read a book on preaching like Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching. In a similar manner, though chapter 1 is an adequate introduction to apocalyptic literature, one can find other suitable introductions in dictionary articles such as Richard Bauckham’s in the New Bible Dictionary or P. D. Hanson’s in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Thus there is little here that cannot be found elsewhere.
Thus, though the bibliographies in chapter 3 are worth pillaging, and a teacher might find chapter 1 and maybe chapter 2 worth assigning as introductory material for a class on apocalyptic literature, the book on the whole is only going to be useful to the student who is not only naïve to apocalyptic literature, but also to the general practice of exegesis and homiletics as well.
Chad Hardy is a PhD student in Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook