For Andrei's class this week, I read an introductory chapter in the main textbook that he's using, and we had a few articles on the side. Mostly, we were trying to get into "the state of the question" this week, where "the question" in this case is the entire field. The readings were really kind of exciting, even being just for that: this is such a comparatively young field. things had been written on apocalyptic literature over the last century, and even some in the 19th century during that explosion of academic exploration, but it seems that the field really took off in the last 20 years. The first chapter of John J. Collins' The Apocalyptic Imagination, "The Apocalyptic Genre," began our initiation to one of the two big current schools of thought regarding apocalyptic: that it is best understood in terms of genre, as being best conceived as a literary form. Surveying the scholarly history of studying these texts, he offers this "Genre-School" definition of apocalyptic, published in the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project in Semeia 14, in 1979:
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.
People note the eschatological [having to do with the end of things, particularly the world or history itself, final judgment, that sort of thing] easily in the book that gave apocalyptic literature its name: the Apocalypse (or, to translate the Greek, Revelation) of John at the end of the New Testament. Many texts in this Jewish period had that kind of leaning: it seems like a narrative way to philosophize about the meaning of history--what it all adds up to. You see Jesus talk in this mode around the 24-25 chapters of Matthew, if I remember my numbers correctly.
After being very satisfied with Collins' chapter, with the description of apocalyptic as a genre, i was much less pleased by the time I got to the end of Gabriele Boccaccini's "Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition: The Contribution of Italian Scholarship" in Mysteries and Revelations, edited by J.J. Collins and J.H. Charlesworth. Having been hugely productive since 1979, the Italian School of thought on apocalyptic rejects the idea that apocalyptic can best be understood as a genre and instead says that it must be understood as an ideology. It argues that the core, "generative idea" of apocalyptic is a concept of evil "as an autonomous reality, antecedent even to humankind's ability to choose." Form, style, even worldview do not matter: for the Italians, only this idea--expressed in any form--constitutes "apocalyptic." So the Italians then offer a reconstruction of the history of an apocalyptic party or group in Second Temple Judaism, setting this group of their alongside rabbinic Jews and the early Jewish Christians.
While the Italians are offering some interesting possibilities of reconstructing a history of a theoretical group based on texts that aren't directly recounting a history (always a shaky effort), the real problem is that they insist on using the word "apocalyptic" in an entirely new way and insist that only their usage is proper. You have people talking about an "apocalyptic genre" (probably the original use of the word, describing the similarity between texts like Revelation and Daniel in the Bible, and lots of extra-biblical texts), about an "apocalyptic worldview" (think of groups and sects fixated on the end of the world), and the "apocalyptic tradition" that the Italians think they've discovered. But then they insist that only their definition of a supposed ideological tradition is what "apocalyptic" really is, and throw out any text that doesn't fit their theory--including both Daniel and the Revelation, the text that gave the phenomenon its name! Although Boccaccini denies it, this really is just a matter of horrific and irresponsible equivocation. The Italians could make a very interesting contribution to scholarship with their theories and research into a specific ideological tradition, but create nothing but a mess of confusion by taking the central term of this subject and re-defining it. Imagine the confusion if one major group of scholars suddenly began writing about "Comedy" or even "Physics," but insisted that the way the word has been used so far is incorrect and that these words really designate a particular political group. The article was a pain in the rear, and only reinforced--even for this beginner--that Collins' approach of talking about apocalypse as a genre was far more sensible. It's still debated in the literature if that is the best approach or not, but certainly I do not feel that the Italian School has offered much of an alternative.