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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature" (Richard A. Taylor)

TITLE: Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Richard A. Taylor
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2016, (208 pages).

Compared to the Old Testament, more people find it easier to interpret the New Testament. The same is true for apocalyptic literature. Seeing this need for training and equipping, Kregel publishers have prepared a series of handbooks to assist readers on understanding, exegesis, and interpretation of difficult Old Testament topics. There are a total of six volumes covering the six genres of narrative, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature. They aim to help us understand the principles of understanding and the methods for communicating and teaching. All the handbooks follow the six chapter structure:

  1. The Nature of the Genres
  2. Major Themes
  3. Preparing for Interpretation
  4. Interpretation
  5. Proclamation
  6. Summarizing the Process from Text to Sermon
In this latest handbook, the author notes that apocalyptic literature has been in the forefront of research. This is typical during times of depression and economic gloom, where many seek solace and comfort in trying not only to explain the times but to anticipate hope. Knowing that the range of apocalyptic literature is huge, Richard Taylor decides to zoom in on the Book of Daniel, discover the principles of interpretation and to extrapolate the methods to other apocalyptic literature. He describes apocalyptic literature as revelatory literature disclosed to humans to showcase a transcendent reality both now and in the future, so as to influence the behaviour of the recipients. It is a way of thinking. In trying to clarify the terms, he goes so far as to differentiate apocalypse from apocalypticism; apocalyptic eschatology, discourse, and proto-apocalyptic. He uses the book of Daniel and highlights the message, the purpose, the major themes, before highlighting the principles that could be used for other apocalyptic passages. A key point to remember is that apocalyptic literature do not always present themselves neatly in one book, block, or chunk of literature. They are often found embedded in various passages, implied or explicit, mixed with non-apocalyptic literature, and subject to other genre considerations. 

On the major themes, we require the major intertestamental texts and the Dead Sea scrolls to guide our interpretation. Some of these include the Book of Enoch, Book of the Watchers, Astronomical Book, Animal Apocalypse, Book of Jubilees, Fourth Ezra, Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Abraham, etc. Not all themes appear in every apocalyptic passage. In the same way, the existence of a theme does not mean the passage is apocalyptic. Genre is crucial to understanding. Taylor offers us the following guide to recognizing the features of apocalyptic literature:
  1. They prefer the literary rather than oral expression
  2. Content that is more revelatory
  3. Emphasis on dreams and visions
  4. Pseudonymous authorship that points to some past hero
  5. Hidden and secret
  6. Pervasive symbolism
  7. Developed Angelology
  8. Ethical dualism
  9. Deterministic outlook
  10. Belief in imminent crisis
  11. Presence of faithful remnant
  12. Warnings of divine judgment
  13. Anticipate future hope

In preparing for interpretation, we note the five ares to consider. We need to comprehend the figurative language used. we learn from reception history, which is about learning not to go beyond what is revealed. We evaluate issues of textual transmission. We learn to work with the original languages as well as other sources. The interpretation process comes after the heavy lifting of exegesis and genre understanding. Some important guidelines to interpretation include:

  • Grammar, syntax, and History
  • Genre issues
  • Locate interpretive clues within the texts
  • Look at the macrostructure
  • Recognizing the limits of figurative language
  • Respecting the parts where Scripture is silent
Knowing the pitfalls of interpretation is probably one of the most important part of interpretation. We can err on the manipulating details, becoming too certain or dogmatic, or reading meaning into the text instead of getting meaning from the text. Preaching and proclaiming the apocalyptic texts require the building of a bridge from the ancient contexts to the modern era. Seven basic steps are proposed.

  1. Be familiar with the text
  2. Resolve the Main difficulties 
  3. Clarify the structure
  4. Summarize the main points
  5. Frame the presentation
  6. Listen to other interpreters
  7. Bridge the application
Taylor then uses the above seven steps and applies them to Daniel 8:1-27 and Joel 2:28-32. This essentially puts whatever that have been discussed in theory directly into practice in the hope that readers can adapt and adopt the principles of interpretation to the other apocalyptic passages. Taylor is a scholar who is well aware of the limitations of human interpretation. This is the hallmark of a good teacher, to be able to recognize one's limits while encouraging readers to explore the potential of their learning. Apocalyptic literature is definitely one that will stretch our imaginations and interpretations. This handbook will be particularly helpful for preachers wanting to go deep into the apocalyptic literature without becoming lost in the details. Having a general overview of the passage is critical so as not to miss out the trees for the forest. Taylor brings a lot of experience into the writing of this book. I especially appreciate the warnings about over-interpretation or eisegesis, which is such a great temptation in our world of scientific certainty and sky-high expectations of modern knowledge. Studying apocalyptic literature means three things to me.

First, it challenges us to be clear about what we want to interpret. Taylor spends time trying to distinguish between the various terms like apocalypse, apocalyptic, eschatology, proto-apocalypse, and so on. This tells me that before we can be clear about any answer, we need to be clear about our questions in the first place. In computer language, we have a term called GIGO, Garbage In Garbage Out, which is a way of describing what we put in is what we get. When we are clear about the question and the terms, it makes it easier for us to study and to reach a meaningful goal in our studies.

Second, it humbles us in an age where everyone seems to believe they have a right to their own opinions and understanding. The Bible clearly says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. With apocalyptic literature, one can never be too certain and interpretation has to be done carefully and diligently. At the same time, there is always a need for an open mind to receive what God would teach us in other ways. This book is but one of the many ways to do so.

Third, it encourages us to take these apocalyptic literature from the ivory towers to the masses. While it is acknowledged that apocalyptic literature has moved to the forefront of scholarship and academic research, the same cannot be said of modern pulpits. We need to share the findings of the academy with the common layperson. After all, the Word of God is meant for all, not just scholars and professors. 

All in all, I am happy with this book and the principles listed. This will be an important resource for pastors, preachers, teachers, and all who teach the Bible in one way or another.

Richard A Taylor is Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and has research interests on the Hebrew Bible, exegetical method, Semitic languages, Syriac literature, etc. He is also the Director of the PhD program at Dallas.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Kregel Academic without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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