Four Kingdoms Motifs in Ancient Jewish Apocalypses
Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Shorts, Episode 5
The Qumran group is famously described as “an apocalyptic community that didn’t write apocalypses.” Yet, as we now know, their library not only included their insider literature but many texts that originated outside the community.
Many of the writings that likely came from before and beyond the Qumran group were penned in Aramaic. These texts represent up to 13% of the Dead Sea Scrolls and include a significant number of books that are either apocalyptic in their outlook or formally fit within the genre of the apocalypse.
In a way, the Aramaic scrolls demand that we rethink the commonly accepted statement above: the Qumranites were indeed “an apocalyptic community that read apocalypses.”
But what does this new suite of Aramaic apocalypses reveal?
Of the many lessons the imaginative world of the Aramaic texts teach us about the formation of apocalyptic thought and literature is that scribes actively engaged in what has been termed “apocalyptic historiography.” As they reflected on past experiences, considered the pressures of the present, and anticipated a better future, scribes of these writings looked for continuity and patterns. If they could interpret the structures and cycles of history, perhaps they could both plot themselves on this timeline, extrapolate when evil would be vanquished, clock the overturn of empires, and pinpoint the arrival of the divine rule of God.
One common motif that enabled apocalyptic historiography comes in the form of a “four kingdoms” schema. Readers of the biblical book of Daniel are of course familiar with this pattern. Whether it is the four-tiered statue in Daniel 2, the four beasts in Daniel 7, or reworkings of these Aramaic ideas of empire in the latter Hebrew half of the book, the four kingdoms concept is foundational to Daniel’s theological outlook.
In this episode of Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Shorts, we find both a new text and interpretive context for this style of apocalyptic historiography in ancient Jewish Aramaic literature. The aptly named Four Kingdoms fragments reveal that the scribes of Daniel were not the only ones of this period attempting to decode history using a four kingdoms schema. But what four kingdoms lie behind these symbols and how did apocalyptic historiography offer hope under the unexpected emergence of new world powers in antiquity?
The Aramaic Afterlives of Genesis’s Giants The mention of giants before the flood in Genesis 6:4 has been both a source of imagination and interpretation down through the centuries. This curious passage, however, was the departure point for Aramaic exegesis that answered the question of the origins and end of all evil.
What is Pseudepigraphy and How Did It Shape Scripture? There are many voices in scripture, yet seldom do we hear that of scribes. One strategy ancient Jewish scribes used to transmit and create works was the practice of pseudepigraphy. What was it, how did it work, and why did it breathe new life into overlooked biblical characters?
Aramaic Biographies of Angels and Demons Part of the challenge and opportunity of studying the Bible is that, while it often feels familiar, it comes from a foreign context. The texts and traditions of scripture come from ancient cultures, people, places, and even languages that are lost to most modern minds.
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