The Apocalypse of Sedrach

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 17 April, 1997)

I. Apocalyptic and Apocalypses

“Apocalyptic” is another word that is to a large degree a scholarly construct used to describe an elusive social and literary phenomenon in the ancient world. The word “apocalypse” is derived from the Greek APOKALUPSIS, “revelation,” and is used inconsistently by both ancient authors and modern scholars.

Various approaches have been taken to try to explain the origins of apocalyptic literature and movements. Paul Hanson, for example, finds the origins of apocalyptic eschatology in socially peripheral groups of the restoration period (immediately following the Babylonian Exile) who drew on and developed prophetic traditions. Gerhard von Rad, on the other hand, believed that apocalyptic developed from wisdom literature, not prophecy. And Margaret Barker has argued that apocalyptic comes from the royal cult of the Davidic dynasty (celebrated in the Jerusalem temple) after these royal traditions lost their original Sitz im Leben when the temple was destroyed.

The approach I have found most useful (and most appropriate for this course) is that of John J. and Adela Yarbro Collins, as developed in volumes 14 and 36 of the journal _Semeia_. (John and Adela, respectively, edited these two volumes.) They set aside the sociological questions and focused on the literary problem of defining the genre “apocalypse.” The Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project collected all extant apocalypses from about 250 BCE to 250 CE and analyzed their literary structure, producing a “master paradigm” of the genre apocalypse. Many elements of this paradigm are present in any given apocalypse, although none has every element. (A sample analysis according to the master paradigm of a specific apocalypse, the Apocalypse of Sedrach, is given below.) Their overall definition of the genre apocalypse is as follows:

“‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world, intended to interpret present, earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world and of the future, and to influence both the understanding and the behaviour of the audience by means of divine authority.” (_Semeia_ 36, pp. 2 and 7)

At this stage in the study of apocalyptic it is probably most sensible to use something of a “toolbox” approach, drawing on sociological theory, parallels with prophecy or sapiential or royal traditions, and literary criticism as they show themselves useful for given problems or texts. It is also important to note that the genre apocalypse is frequently found elsewhere in the the Greco-Roman world and the ancient Near East during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. It is not just an Israelite or Jewish and Christian phenomenon and any comprehensive explanation of its origins must deal with its relatively sudden appearance over much of the ancient world.

II. The Apocalypse of Sedrach

This interesting little text bears on many issues raised in this course, including how to establish the Jewish origin of a document, the reuse of earlier texts, the question of theodicy in the OT Pseud, the survival of the OT Pseud after late antiquity, and the genre “apocalypse” discussed just above. Charlesworth and Agourides noted that this work has been sadly neglected by scholarship and, surprisingly, this statement is still true today. It seems to me that a good doctoral dissertation could come out of a new edition, translation, and commentary on the ApocSed.

As I mentioned, the ApocSed is a good example of the genre apocalypse as defined by the Collins’s. In their terminology it is a Type IIc Apocalypse: Apocalypse with An Otherworldly Journey and Only Personal Eschatology. The following genre outline of Apoc Sed is based on Semeia 14, p. 104, but is more detailed and has some differences.


  • 1.0 Manner of revelation:
  • 1.2 Auditory revelation (2:1-4)
  • 1.2.2 Dialogue between mediator and recipient (see 2.0 below)
  • 1.3 Otherworldly journey (2:5)
  • 1.4 Disposition of recipient (1:4)
  • 2.0 Otherworldly mediator communicates the revelation (hidden voice,2:1; only begotten Son/Christ, 9:1-5, 12:1; archangel Michael, 14:1;–but most of the dialogue is between Sedrach and God himself)
  • 3.0 The human recipent:
  • 3.1 Pseudonymous human recipient (Sedrach [= Ezra?–see below])
  • Content: Temporal Axis
  • 4.0 Protology:
  • 4.1 Theogony (chs. 3-4)
  • 4.2 Primordial events (sins of Adam and the devil, chs. 3-7)
  • 8.0 Eschatological judgment:
  • 8.1 of sinners (implied)
  • 9.0 Eschatological salvation:
  • 9.2 Personal salvation
  • 9.2.1 by resurrection? (implied by the lament over the body in ch. 11?)
  • 9.2.2 in the (undefined) afterlife (14:5; 16:3)
  • Content: Spatial Axis
  • 10.0 Otherworldly elements:
  • 10.1 Otherworldly regions described (third heaven, 2:5)
  • 10.2 Otherworldy beings (angels, Christ, Michael)
  • 11. Paraenesis: answer to question about repentence
  • 12.0 Instructions to the recipient: it is implied that Sedrach should publish the revelation, since it is promised that all who copy it will have their sins forgiven forever (16:3)
  • 13.0 Narrative conclusion (16:5-7)

A number of other issues arise from the study of the ApocSed:

1. Was the original work Jewish or Christian? Agourides acknowledges that the final form of the work is Christian, but he still tries to find a purely Jewish substrate, even though the one Greek MS in our possession is full of Patristic and Byzantine language. His arguments under Provenance seem at most to show that ApocSed comes from an unusual form of Christianity that had some knowledge of Jewish themes. The whole text is full of allusions to the NT and early Christian ideas, not just the sermon on love in chapter 1.

2. There is a clear connection on some level between the ApocSed and the earlier work 4 Ezra. M. R. James was surely right in suggesting that Sedrach (Shadrach–mentioned only in Daniel 1-3) is a corruption of Esdras, the Greek form of the name Ezra. The earthly dialogue between Ezra and the angel Uriel in 4 Ezra is paralleled by the heavenly dialogue between “Sedrach” and God. The parallels include the overall dialogue structure and many details of the discussion. It is unclear to me whether the dependence is literary or the writer of ApocSed knew an oral version of 4 Ezra, but the dependence itself seems quite certain. It is interesting to note that a very similar relationship is found between the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) and the much later Hekhalot text 3 Enoch. The relationship between these two documents will be explored later in the semester.

3. There are also some Islamic parallels to the ApocSed. (i) The story of how the devil refused to worship Adam (ch. 5) is found in the Qur’an (Sura 15:26-43 and elsewhere). The devil is called “Iblis” in Arabic, a corruption of the Greek word DIABOLOS. (ii) Sedrach’s negotiating of the shortest acceptable period of repentence (chs. 12-16) seems to foreshadow an episode in the account of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven (al-Miraj). On the way back from the throne of God, Muhammad was asked by Moses how many times per day believers had been commanded to pray and Muhammad answered “fifty.” Moses repeatedly told him to go back and ask for a reduction of the number until it was down to five. Moses wanted him to go back and ask for a further reduction but Muhammad was too embarrassed to do it, so Muslims are obliged to pray five times per day. (iii) There are references to an “Idris” in the Qur’an. We are told that he was “steadfast” (Sura 21:85) and that he was a saint and prophet who was raised to a high place (Sura 19:56-57). It seems likely that Idris is a corruption of the name Esdras, and that the Qur’an is familiar with the story of Ezra as found in 4 Ezra and the ApocSed. The linguistic evidence points to an influence that moves from (presumably Byzantine) Greek tradition to Islamic tradition.

Overall, then, although there is some case to be made that chapter 1 was composed separately from the rest of ApocSed, there is no compelling reason to regard chapters 2-16 as originally Jewish. They are permeated with Christian thought and language and are probably a (Byzantine?) Christian reworking of an earlier Greek translation (or Greek oral tradition?) of 4 Ezra. Something like the ApocSed influenced early Islamic traditions.

Some bibliographical notes:

Margaret Barker discusses the origins of apocalyptic in _The Older Testament_ (London: SPCK, 1987)

Adela Yarbro Collins (ed.), _Early Christian Apocalypticism: Genre and Social Setting_, _Semeia_ 36 (1986)

Paul Hanson discusses the origins of apocalyptic in _The Dawn of Apocalyptic_

The story of Muhammad’s translation to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven can be found in _Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources_, by Martin Lings (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1983) 101-104

Gerhard von Rad discusses the origins of apocalyptic in _Old Testament Theology_ vol. II (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 301-15

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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