Describe major characteristics of medieval apocalyptic literature. Which social forces and conditions make popular apocalyptic beliefs?
Questions based on The Apocalypse of Paul and The Book Of Muhammad's Ladder. I'm trying to get a grip on the questions above so I can decide if I believe in any modern apocalyptic prophecy and write a paper on that.
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Apocalyptic literature has been a common element of Judaism and Christianity for over two millennia. The term technically means “hidden” or “secret” and is used to contrast works not accepted as official by a church or not approved for reading by the general public.
The process of canonization – determining which works were officially “Scripture” and which were not – was gradual and hotly debated. There were many groups of Christians, including Gnostics, Nestorians, Arians, etc. who lost out in the political battles that determined what was to become the orthodoxy of the major Christian churches. Many of their writings have been lost, but archaeologists uncovered a variety of these “apocryphal” texts in the Nag Hammadi desert. Other texts have been preserved but are considered canonical by some branches of Christianity and apocryphal by other. Several versions of the Apocalypse of Paul have been preserved in various ways. Apocrypha continue to be composed within the Christian tradition. Although most contemporary Christian churches do not consider these works canonical, theologians still read some of them not only for historical understanding, but for spiritual insights.
An Apocalypse is a revelation. Since many apocryphal revelations were eschatological (discussion of the end of times, the millennium, the second coming), the term “Apocalypse” is often used to mean end times.
Medieval interest in apocalyptic literature stems from the (1) millennium (many people believed the world would end ca. 1000) and (2) the black plague (eschatological cults flourish in times of uncertainty).
Elaine Pagels’ work might be a good place to start on the role of apocryphal gospels in Christian belief. Bart D. Ehrman has written several excellent books on early Christian writings, both apocryphal and canonical, and the evolution of the canon. Both write in a clear, accessible style.
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