New Testament Apocalypses: Synoptics and Epistles

“Little Apocalypse”: Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21:5-37

In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus launches into the “Little Apocalypse” immediately upon predicting the destruction of the Temple. This suggests that the passage was written or included as a response to this very event in 70 CE. This is closer to the “post-facto prediction” that we see in Daniel and Enoch than in Revelation. However, all three occurrences place it at the beginning of Holy Week, shortly after Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and with the Crucifixion and Resurrection in view: we should keep in mind Jesus’ prediction near the beginning of John’s Gospel, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)

Mark’s and Luke’s versions explicitly show the disciples admiring the Temple (it’s only implied in Matthew), so the Little Apocalypse serves in part to discourage such admiration and instead encourage a disciplined “watchfulness,” a sharp attentiveness that can discern what God is doing in these tumultuous times, and a call to endure through to the end of crisis. (See note 1) Matthew’s version expands on this exhortation to watchful attention with a series of parables, many of which we have been hearing in our Sunday lectionary.

Most of the Little Apocalypse does not rely on much apocalyptic imagery, but still predicts the sort of crisis, violence and persecution that has typically received apocalyptic treatment. However, all three synoptics quote Daniel’s vision of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30, quoting a translation of Daniel 7:13). Matthew and Luke describe the unmaking of the “cosmic temple”: a plague of darkness and the stars falling out of the firmament.

Also, it can be argued that the use of parables in the genre of Gospel narrative (“from the fig tree learn its lesson…the kingdom of heaven is like…for it is as if a man…” etc.) functions the same way as visions do in the genre of Apocalypse. To illustrate this, perhaps an Apocalypse would have Matthew 24:32 be something like, “I looked, and beheld a fig tree putting forth its leaves….” Matthew’s version concludes by doubling down on this common function: before the throne of the Son of Man, surrounded by the angels, the righteous and unrighteous are sequestered “one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats….” (25:32)

St. Paul’s Apocalyptic vision: Acts 9:1-19; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 51-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

While St. Paul’s primary concerns in his epistles are pastoral responses to specific situations, the worldview framing those responses is thoroughly apocalyptic. His vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus stands in a long tradition of ascetics venturing through the desert to pray, in the hopes that they would receive a vision like Daniel or Enoch. (See note 2) Jesus’ identification with his followers’ suffering will become for Paul the key to seeing how Jesus’ Resurrection fulfils the Pharisaic hope of the resurrection of the righteous described in Daniel 12.

You’ll note that while 1 Corinthians 15 is chiefly a meditation on the Resurrection of Christ, Paul can’t help but spell out its immediate implications for the rest of us. Jesus is the righteous one who endured the evil of the cross, and becomes the “first fruits of those who those who have died.” (1 Corinthians 15:20) It is in Christ’s own righteousness, in this first fruit, the new Adam, that we all receive resurrection at the End of the Age. As Paul would write to Timothy, “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (2 Timothy 2:11-12)

What this looks like for St. Paul is grounded in apocalyptic imagery common to much of what we’ve seen so far. The “children of the light and children of the day” are called to “keep awake and be sober,” (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6), attentive to God’s gracious involvement in time. Just like we saw in Revelation 11:15, the final angelic trumpet will herald the resurrection of the dead, the judgement of the world and the reign of Christ. In walled cities throughout the Ancient Near East, the watchmen in the guard tower would blow a ram’s horn to signify the approach of an honoured ruler, a journeying bridegroom—or an invading army. (see Joel 2:1) Here it is given cosmic significance as the sign of the Second Coming of Christ.

A selection of musical examples:

Lutheran Germany:

Mendelssohn, Paulus: “Und als er auf dem Wege war”
Paul’s vision of Jesus, setting Acts 9:3-6. Mendelssohn aptly captures the ethereal, otherworldly nature of the vision.

Schutz, Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?
A much earlier setting of the same scene.

Bach, Wachet Auf
Trombones served a similar function in medieval and renaissance Germany that ram’s horns did in the Ancient Near East. They were also the city’s alarm clock. The hymn this is based on is a meditation on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem: Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt
Primarily a setting of 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, beginning with the baritone solo. Luther translated “trumpet” as posaune—trombone—likely for the reason mentioned above.

Dies Irae settings:

This ancient poetic meditation on the Last Judgement was part of funeral and memorial liturgies for centuries. It includes a reference to the trumpet blast (tuba mirum spargens sonum) and the division of sheep and goats (Inter oves locum praesta, et ab haedis me sequestra, statuens in parte dextra). The sheer volume of apocalyptic imagery packed into this one poem has made for some of the most imaginative examples of sacred music.

Morales, Requiem: Dies Irae
This setting largely comprises the traditional chant melody, with the concluding invocation set by Morales.

Biber, Requiem in F minor: Dies Irae

Mozart, Requiem: Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum
Another famous substitution of trombone for trumpet, albeit in a Catholic context.

Verdi, Requiem: Dies Irae and Tuba Mirum
The master of 19th-century Italian opera offers his own contribution. (Note the actual use of trumpets…)

And in English:

Hymn: Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

Handel, Messiah:

(Background reflections for a course on Apocalyptic Literature taught on Zoom by Rev. Daniel Graves. I led the discussions of New Testament texts. The original post for the Synoptics and Epistles on Fr. Dan’s site can be found here. My notes on the Book of Revelation can be found here and here.)

  1. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, “Chapter 24-25: Enduring.”
  2. Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul, 48-50.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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