Eight characteristics of apocalyptic literature

‘Apocalypse’ is a literary term coined by German scholar K. I. Nitzsch in 1822. It refers to works written by Jews and Christians between 200 B.C. and AD 100 that share similar characteristics. Below is a list of those characteristics.

  1. Apocalypses are usually pseudonymous – written as if by an ancient figure such as Enoch or Abraham.
  2. Apocalypses are usually written from a context of oppression, persecution and despair. Many scholars use the phrase ‘resistance literature’ to describe them.
  3. A heavenly intermediary usually appears in Apocalypses to interpret visions or reveal secret knowledge.
  4. Apocalypses contain a sharp dualism, a contrast between the present age dominated by evil, and a coming age of change.
  5. Apocalypses tend to be pessimistic about the possibility for positive change during the present age. What is needed is a radical divine intervention to overthrow God’s enemies and set things right.
  6. Apocalypses are usually filled with symbolism.
  7. Apocalypses tend to be deterministic, portraying an inescapable future, set in stone by God’s fixed calendar of events.
  8. In apocalypses, events that are contemporary to the author are often portrayed as if they were prophesied long ago, so that what is happening in the author’s day is merely a fulfilment of what was revealed centuries before.

Sources: David Aune, Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 1-5. (Waco, TX: Word, 1997); Elwell y Yarbrough, Al Encuentro del Nuevo Testamento. (Grand Rapids: Baker, __), 395, Grant R. Osborne, “Recent Trends in the Study of the Apocalypse”, in The Face of New Testament Studies. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 476


  1. victor nxumalo Said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    these charecteristics are not very precise

  2. Dave Gifford Said,

    October 9, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    Hi Victor, feel free to elaborate. I am just broadly reflecting the material that I have read on the subject.

  3. Patrick Said,

    November 17, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    I think these pretty much sum up Apocalyptic Lit. I was too lazy to get out my old notes, and these fit nicely.

  4. Bako Dogari Said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    It’s intriguing that almost every opportune reading of an apocalyptic material suddenly unveils another new peel of understanding on the subject. Waow!

  5. kurien george Said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 7:56 am

    I have gone through your material and I found it simplistic and sweeping.Though some of the apocalyptic writings were spurious you cannot club them with genuine. stuff like Daniel and John’s Revelation which were inspired by the Holy Spirit and foretells the Endtimes happenings.I am afraid your writings have a hidden modernist agenda to discredit the Holy Writ.

  6. Dave Gifford Said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 7:38 am

    Hi George, I believe the canonical apocalyptic writings are inspired and therefore distinct from the rest. But in making a list of what books fit in that genre, or a list of the characteristics of books in that genre, of course I am going to talk both about canonical and about non-canonical books of that genre. There is no “hidden modernist agenda to discredit the Holy Writ” on my part. Revelation and Daniel are the word of God for me.

  7. David Said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 9:03 pm

    Another feature which is common, though not always present, is the concept to “seal up the book.” This is one of the features that make The Revelation unique.

  8. Bryan Brigham Said,

    October 15, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    Thanks for the list. It is helpful. My own list of normal apocalyptic characteristics is as follows:

    a. Pseudonymous Authorship
    b. Cultural oppression, persecution, and despair
    c. Celestial Revelation
    d. Well-Defined Symbolism
    e. Sharp Dualism (Bright Future)
    f. Significant Pessimism and Lack of Hope
    g. Lots of Vivid Symbolism
    h. Deterministic (Unalterable)
    i. God’s Intervention and Judgment

    It should be noted that (as a genre), apocalyptic literature is actually a commentary on current events disguised as a prophecy made in the distant past. If the relevant biblical books are actually written during the lifetimes of the traditional authors, then they are prophetic rather than apocalyptic on at least these ground. Additional grounds for believing that while Daniel, Revelation, and parts of Ezekiel have some apocalyptic characteristics, the Bible does not contain any apocalyptic literature as traditionally defined can be found in comparision with the list just provided. For example,

    1) Well-Defined Symbolism ≠ Daniel is specifically told that he is not intended to understand or share everything he sees, and

    2) Deterministic (Unalterable) ≠ Nebuchadnezzar is given a warning and a real choice regarding the consequences of his pride.

    3) Significant Pessimism and Lack of Hope ≠ The biblical books are actually written to provide hope to God’s people, not just encourage them to anticipate God’s vengeance on their enemies.

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