Ancient and Modern Apocalypse from a Genre Theory Perspective

In: A Critical Approach to the Apocalypse
Allan Weiss
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The term ‘apocalypse’ is currently understood to mean mass destruction, the end of the human race or the planet as a whole, or at least some sort of global disaster. As we know, however, the word literally means ‘revelation,’ and it was used as the title of the text that eventually became the final book of the Bible. Yet for most scholars who specialise in apocalyptic studies, an apocalyptic text must include an eschatological element. Nowadays, the term ‘apocalyptic science fiction’ refers to fantastic literature about the destruction of humanity, however that end comes about. How, then, did the Greek word for ‘revelation’ come to mean something far more limited: a revelation of the end-times? In other words, how did the eschatological element become a defining feature of a genre in which it may well have played only an incidental role when the genre was established? To understand this development, we might turn to recent genre theory, and particularly to the literary application of psychological theories on taxonomy. One such theory involves the role of the prototype: the instance or example of a type that becomes the model by which we categorise other phenomena as belonging to the same type. It may well be, then, that while in St. John’s day, an ‘apocalypse’ could be any sort of revelatory text, Revelation itself – through its canonisation – became the prototypical apocalyptic text, one that forever changed the genre by making eschatology a necessary feature of a ‘true’ apocalypse.

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