Robert J. DALY, SJ, editor, Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity. Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. pp. 304. $32.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3627-9.
Reviewed by Michael G. AZAR, Fordham University, Bronx, NY, 10458

With an eye towards contemporary, more dreadful, misconceptions of the End and the Apocalypse, this collection takes “a good look at the way the great teachers of the early church taught us to look ahead, not with fear and foreboding at terrible things to come, but with loving trust in the coming into our lives of the One at whose arrival ' he wolf shall live with the lamb' (Isa. 11:6)” (8). The collection comprises a wide range of approaches, including literary, historical, art historical, and liturgical.

Theodore Stylianopoulos begins by offering a canonical exploration of the meaning of “works” in Revelation in light of the motifs of grace and judgment. Considering whether Revelation teaches salvation by works, Stylianopoulos suggests that Paul’s writings provided the initial steps toward the ideas expressed in Revelation.

Bernard McGinn explores the theological and canonical tensions raised by Revelation and apocalypticism in early Christianity.  He traces the shift in “literal” understandings of apocalyptic expectations (especially the millennial reign) to spiritual (especially christological and ecclesiological) – a shift that directly contributed to Revelation's canonical acceptability. Similarly, Brian Daley explores the “hybridization” of apocalyptic themes and openly christocentric doctrinal matters, as apocalypticism became “a vehicle for acknowledging Jesus as Lord of history” (109), gradually losing its “original mystery, drama, and rhetorical tension” (108).  John McGuckin, reviewing both biblical eschatological idioms and the thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, argues that the Cappadocians were legitimate heirs, rather than “Hellenistic betrayers” (210), of biblical modes of eschatological thought.

Ute Possekel explores the surprising lack of apocalyptic imagery in certain third-century Syriac traditions.  Alexander Golitzin illumines the ways in which apocalyptic motifs factored into fourth-century monastic culture, especially with regards to the role of the illumined elder.  Dragos-Andrei Giulea investigates the fusing of Jewish apocalyptic and Greek mystery traditions in the work of Pseudo-Hippolytus on Pascha.  Bogdan G. Bucur reviews the ways in which early Christianity appropriated Second-Temple apocalyptic themes of the divine Face.  J. A. Cerrato uses the works of Hippolytus and Cyril of Jerusalem to explain how Antichrist theology became a part of baptismal training.  Elijah Nicolas Mueller explores the ways in which John Damascene imported earlier apocalyptic themes into his own, unique apologetic outlook.  Lorenzo DiTommaso surveys early Christian Daniel Apocalyptica (first-person revelations resembling the visions of Daniel), revealing the continuing survival of the apocalypse genre, even while undergoing evolutionary structural transformations. Georgia Frank explores the mythical and apocalyptic roots of early traditions of Jesus’ descent into hell, which was kept alive in Christian storytelling and ritual.

Two essays, the first by John Herrmann and Annewies van den Hoek and the second by Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, provide an art historical investigation. The first comprises a lengthy overview of the monuments and art of early Christianity, revealing how biblical apocalypses frequently found their way into Christian art by way of artistic adaptations, even emendations, in order to better fit contemporary local interests and traditions. Perhaps most striking is their observation that apocalyptic judgment scenes “of punishment and disaster were completely avoided” (80), while artists instead drew on apocalyptic sources for themes of God’s comfort, benevolence, and salvation. 

Sevcenko explores images of the second coming and the fate of the soul in Middle Byzantine art.  Particularly enlightening is her revelation that Byzantine Last Judgment compositions often had a surprising political agenda: “…they do not primarily address the individual sinner but are designed above all to strike terror in the hearts of those who administer the highly structured Byzantine world” (258). 

Sevcenko shows that depictions of individual punishments for individual crimes only slowly entered iconographic depictions – a point editor Robert J. Daly values immensely. Accordingly, Daly concisely summarizes what he sees as the book’s apt but unforeseen thesis: “…in early Christianity apocalyptic ideas are not heavily dominated by negative and terrifying ideas of a terrible, fearsome end-event.  Quite the contrary! By the end of the second century the early Christian writers were interpreting the Apocalypse as pointing not toward some awe-inspiring and future event, but to the challenges of contemporary life in the church” (13). 

While a few essays touch on the Jewish apocalyptic background of Christianity, a particular essay dedicated fully to the topic would have benefited the collection as a whole. Not only might such an addition highlight the uniqueness of the patristic, vis-à-vis the rabbinical, inheritance and continuation of apocalypticism, but it would also contribute to the overarching theme to which Daly points, since many Jewish apocalypses focused on the hope of deliverance for the favored community, and less on their fear of judgment, and were often vehicles of theological expressions.

Nonetheless, Daly recognizes that as far as apocalyptic themes in early Christianity are concerned, this collection has “only begun to scratch the surface” (14). This is a well-rounded collection, providing a wide-ranging, yet brief, look into the multifaceted apocalyptic thought of early Christian existence. 

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