Q&A: Apocalyptic Prophecy as Visionary Prophecy

Apocalyptic Prophecy as Visionary Prophecy

What are some distinctive characteristics of apocalyptic literature?

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Answer

The book of Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic prophecy — not just any kind of prophecy, but apocalyptic prophecy — which is to say, visionary prophecy. If you don't get the genre signals right then you don't understand the sort of universe of discourse out of which this book is operating. Apocalyptic prophecy is visionary prophecy, and the thing that characterizes that is that the prophet is not just going to say what he heard from God, a late word from God; he's going to relate what he saw in a vision. That's why he's called a "see-er". A seer is someone who sees something. Well, here's the problem for the prophet who's a visionary: he's got to describe what he sees, and the problem when you see the mysterium tremendum is there's not enough words in anybody's vocabulary to describe God, or heaven, or all of those kinds of things. So, what happens, in visionary prophecy, is that he must say, "It's like…" "It's like…" "It's like…" "It's like…" "And I saw a throne and it was like…" "And he was shaped like a human being, and it had a color like x and y." This is the language of metaphor and analogy. If you don't understand that this is metaphorical language, it's poetic language, it's visionary language, you're right off the bat going to make a horrible mistake about the way you interpret this material. I mean, you may actually go around looking for beasts with seven heads and twenty-three horns and then be terribly disappointed that they're not at the San Diego Zoo. Our author is not describing literally something; he's describing something analogically and saying, "It's like this," and that's the way an analogy works. It's a comparison of two unlike things that in some particular way are alike. The genre of apocalyptic prophecy is such that it can even be distinguished from ordinary prophecy as well, and if you don't understand what kind of literature you are dealing with, you're already heading down the road to misinterpreting the book of Revelation.

Answer by Dr. Ben Witherington III

Dr. Ben Witherington III is the Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of more than 40 books and six commentaries, including The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci.