Book Review – The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (D. S. Russell)

D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964) 405 pp., including two appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography (at least through 1964).

As I responded to a correspondent a few weeks back, I make it a priority to stay abreast of the latest books and trends in theology. Thus, I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. And, in my latest endeavor to stay on top of the latest and greatest, I am reviewing a book published in 1964.

I am nothing if not contemporary. Oh, well.

Actually, I stumbled onto this book as a part of my last ministry. I was given the opportunity to peruse the congregation’s library and take a book if I thought it would be useful. When my eye fell on this title I almost flipped. I was disappointed to learn of its early publication date, but only for a moment. Many theological books – those related to apocalyptic especially – become dated rather quickly because of the exploding research into the Dead Sea Scrolls and other related archeological discoveries, many of which were just beginning to be studied in the 1960’s. However that might be, this is an extremely valuable addition to someone’s library if they are interested in understanding this bewildering, some might say mystifying, aspect of the biblical record.

First, a little personal background. My first class on the book of Revelation came in the early 1980’s. I have had a love affair with that book ever since. More recently I was blessed with the opportunity to teach the book of Revelation twice as a part of the faculty on the Eastern New Mexico University religion program. Counting congregational series, I have taught the book of Revelation five times over the past 9 years. Every time I teach the book I get a little deeper, find another commentary, find another resource to help me understand the book. By far the one single aspect of my research that has helped me grasp the meaning of the book has been my study of the topic of apocalyptic literature. So, for me, finding this book by D.S. Russell was like finding a diamond ring on the sidewalk.

This particular volume does not address the book of Revelation at all. It is focused on Jewish apocalyptic literature, arising during the three centuries between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. As such, if you want to apply the book to the N.T. book of Revelation you have to do so by analogy and parallel, but by understanding the thought world, and the process, and the message of apocalyptic literature as it was being produced both before and after the writing of the book of Revelation, it is easy to make those parallel connections.

This book is divided into three sections: Russell began by identifying the Nature and Identity of Jewish Apocalyptic; then discussed the Method of Jewish Apocalyptic; and finally concluded with the Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. I wish I could say that I found “X” to be the most valuable section, or to identify a particular chapter as being especially valuable, but to be honest, I found everything to be valuable (whether I necessarily agreed with Russell’s conclusions or not!) I guess as an over-all statement of value, what I took from the book was the idea that apocalyptic is not just a type of literature, or just a conglomeration of weird images and symbols, but it is a realm of thought processes, it is a method of seeing the world that transforms one’s perspective on every aspect of life. In John J. Collin’s arresting title, apocalyptic is an imagination – but a life changing one at that.

Speaking of John J. Collins, I went back and looked at Collin’s book (The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2nd ed., William B. Eerdman’s 1998) to see how he viewed Russell’s work. Not too favorably, I am sad to relate. But, Collin’s book first came out twenty years after Russell’s (with a second edition coming out in 1998). Between the two, I would recommend Russell’s book as being the more accessible, and Collin’s book as being the more comprehensive (and, a little snooty, but that is my limited opinion). There is a third book on apocalyptic literature on my shelf, Apocalypticism in the Bible and It’s World by Frederick J. Murphy, but I would not recommend it at all. If you are going to buy one book on the subject of apocalyptic, I would equally recommend either Russell or Collins. Collins is more recent, and has some distinct advantages over Russell, but honestly, I would have you buy both. Russell explains some things Collins does not even address, and especially at apocalyptic literature relates to the book of Revelation, I would strongly recommend Russell over Collins.

Now the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read as God’s truth” as it relates to a human production. I disagree with Russell (and Collins too, for that matter) as to the dating of the book of Daniel. They both have Daniel being written after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and cast as being a prophecy foretelling Antiochus’ reign. I think that betrays a serious presupposition about the limitations of biblical prophecy – and raises some real questions about the textual record of the Old Testament as we have it (if the book of Daniel was written in the mid 100’s ┬áB.C., how was it that it came to be studied, copied, and preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls?). As with any scholar, Russell’s biases are going to peek through at times. However, if we are going to learn anything from anyone, we are going to have to set aside our own presuppositions long enough to be challenged by other thoughts and ideas. As with any book, let the reader beware.

As I have suggested, my attraction to this book, and to its subject, all relates to the biblical book of Revelation. If you want to understand a little more of not only what John was attempting to say in this highly symbolic book, but also of how and maybe why he was using the symbolism of apocalyptic, then you need to learn more about the Jewish roots and usage of apocalyptic. It is just my opinion, of course, but I think you will come to understand and love the book of Revelation even more once you understand the literature, and the imagination, of apocalyptic.

P.S. – on a totally unrelated yet sort-of related note, the worldview of Barton W. Stone and later of David Lipscomb has been described as being “apocalyptic” in nature. That, my friends, provides a TON of explanation about why I regard Stone and Lipscomb so highly. Without being technicians in the field of apocalyptic, I think they just “got” the message that Jesus, and later John, was trying to communicate. Ergo and therefore, I think one of the huge failures of the Restoration Movement in general, and the Churches of Christ specifically, is the loss of this apocalyptic imagination from our worldview. In a word (and to invite all kinds of wrath from certain quarters) we are just too Campbellite in our outlook. Ah, but that is the topic of other blog posts, and this one is already much too long.

An Apocalyptic Vision for the Church

In my essay yesterday I pointed out that Barton Stone, and just a generation later David Lipscomb, grasped something about New Testament Christianity that Alexander Campbell either could not see, or rejected. Campbell was an ardent post-millennialist: he believed the movement of which he was a part would usher in the “millennium” and at the end of a long period of human perfection, Christ would come and establish his reign in heaven. He even named his second journal the Millennial Harbinger to emphasize that point. In a semi-related footnote, the Civil War destroyed that belief for Campbell, and he died as so many prophets of human exceptionalism die, disappointed.

Stone, and later Lipscomb, saw things differently. They were just as committed to the restoration principle (just return to the pages of the New Testament in order to restore the church to New Testament simplicity), but they recognized something else. The New Testament has an undeniable forward looking dimension, but it is not created by the wisdom or strength of mankind. For Stone and Lipscomb, if the world is to become a better place, it will only happen by the power of God, and that will only occur through the working of the body of Christ on earth, the church! Lipscomb was especially adamant on this point, writing clearly and passionately that Christians are to avoid every form of contamination with politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Christians could not participate in the army (Lipscomb was horrified at the thought of Christians killing Christians in the Civil War), nor were they to serve in any civil positions. Christians are to live as kingdom citizens, and it is the reign of God in heaven that draws disciples of Christ into living in and promoting the reign of God on earth.

This is the polar opposite of “pie in the sky by and by” theology whereby Christians simply try to be “good people” until they die so that they can float around on little clouds playing their golden harps. This apocalyptic worldview almost got Lipscomb killed, and it was his adamant refusal to participate in politics that has resulted in his influence basically being expunged from the history of the Churches of Christ. On the first point, during a severe outbreak of a deadly epidemic (cholera, if I remember correctly) in Nashville, while Christians fled the city in droves, Lipscomb stayed and used his horse and buggy to drive Roman Catholic nuns around the city so they could minister to the sick and dying. Regarding the second point, it was during World War I, and ultimately World War II that the pacifistic view of Lipscomb was violently rejected (pun intended) so that the members of the Churches of Christ could be viewed as “good patriotic Americans.” Today, among the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ, patriotism is virtually identical to Christianity. Lipscomb, and I believe Stone, would be aghast.

As any reader can probably guess, I am deeply indebted to Stone (what I can read of him, although he did have some weird ideas). I am even more indebted to Lipscomb. I have read Lipscomb’s Civil Government and I am impressed with two things: Lipscomb’s profound biblical knowledge, and his theological insights. Those who disagree with Lipscomb very rarely ever actually engage Lipscomb, they simply defend their love of country and their political commitments more loudly. Which, in an ironic manner, simply proves Lipscomb’s point: you cannot promote God’s kingdom and the kingdom of Satan at the same time. Jesus said it this way, you cannot serve God and man.

A truly apocalyptic worldview has profound implications for the church. I’m not even sure I understand all of them – no, I am certain that I do not understand all of them. I have lived my entire life in an ethos where Christianity and Americanism were considered identical. America was God’s chosen land, and he blessed it with prosperity and peace. I do not think I have ever seen, and I have certainly not worshipped in, a church that is so fully immersed in the kingdom of God that it seeks to literally overturn the rule of Satan in its community. A congregation that exists so that its members can float around on little clouds when they die is inherently crippled – it has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, and certainly no arms or hands to help. Conversely, a church that lives each and every day empowered by God’s indwelling kingdom not only sees, not only hears, but intentionally and actively works to alleviate human misery and to promote that indwelling kingdom.

As America sinks deeper and deeper into moral depravity and violence, I am growing more and more convinced that only this apocalyptic worldview will save the church. We must, we absolutely must, accept the reality that those who deny the lordship of Christ will never be able to think or legislate themselves out of the quagmire that those who deny the lordship of Christ have thought and legislated themselves into. Only when we learn to live, to utterly and totally exist fully immersed in God’s kingdom of love and justice, will the church be able to be the light set on a hill, to be the salt that purifies and preserves this generation.