Prodding the Foundations of “Forensic” vs. “Cosmological” Apocalyptic

For both J. Louis Martyn (‘JLM’) and Martinus de Boer (‘MdB’), how we ought to read Galatians hinges upon one’s understanding of Paul’s inherited apocalyptic worldview. For JLM and MdB, there are two basic categories of early Jewish apocalyptic: “forensic” and “cosmological” apocalyptic eschatology. I briefly outlined JLM’s definitions and summarized and critiqued his reading of Gal 1:4 here. Regarding definitions, MdB doesn’t add much: “cosmic” still = that which has to do with two ages and the divine rescue of humanity from evil cosmic forces and “forensic” still = that which has to do with divine judgment/forgiveness of sins at the eschaton.

What MdB does offer, however, is a more robust textual basis for these categories, drawn from some flagship examples from the period. As MdB sees it, “forensic” apocalyptic is especially represented by traditions like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, while “cosmic” apocalyptic is represented by 1 Enoch 1-36 and As. Mos. 10. These documents are said to illustrate these two “tracks” of Jewish apocalyptic in “nearly ‘pure’ form.”[1] MdB hedges his bets with that qualifier. The problem, as I see it, is that both 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch contain elements of both categories of apocalyptic. MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” needs some nuancing:

Cosmic-1 Enoch: MdB is right to emphasize the cosmic aspect of 1 Enoch. “The Book of Watchers” (1 Enoch 1-36) is predicated on the view that the world is currently under the dominion of suprahuman powers from whom God will rescue it.

Forensic-1 Enoch: But in the first chapter of 1 Enoch, we see at least a strong hint of “forensic” or courtroom apocalyptic: “And there shall be a judgment upon all, (including) the righteous,” and God “will destroy the wicked ones” (1.7, 9). Although not an extended vision of the divine courtroom, it is difficult to imagine a divine judgment of both righteous and wicked that isn’t in some very important way reflective of a “forensic” apocalyptic worldview.

Forensic-4 Ezra4 Ezra 7:32-44 is a classic example of the eschatological courtroom scene in which the wicked and righteous are judged according to their deeds. MdB is on solid ground to emphasize this topos within early Jewish apocalyptic here.

Cosmic-4 Ezra: But in 4 Ezra‘s fifth vision, “the eagle vision” (11:1-46), we have what certainly appears to be a form of so-called “cosmic” apocalyptic. Here the text details Ezra’s vision of a suprahuman force, the eagle, to whom dominion has been (temporarily) given (cf. 11:39) and will soon be summarily taken away (11:44). This is classic “cosmic” apocalyptic.

While there is much with which to agree in both JLM and MdB, I am beginning to suspect that the categories both scholars deploy are too rigid to account for the Jewish traditions they’re meant to represent. It’s not that there aren’t “cosmic” or “forensic” aspects in early Jewish apocalyptic, it’s that the two cannot be made to represent distinct categories of thought. “Cosmic” and “forensic” apocalyptic existed side-by-side and intertwined in early Jewish texts—including, I hasten to note, Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

On this point, MdB is more instructive than JLM. For the former, the two tracks are “christologically appropriated and modified” (emph. original).[2] While MdB still reads Paul as ultimately opting for “cosmic” over “forensic” apocalyptic, JLM presses Paul even more firmly into the “cosmic” mold, pitting him against the “forensic” apocalyptic taught by his opponents (see my previous post).

Still, though, MdB’s 2-track typology, which JLM assumes, is shaky at its foundations. In the first verses of 1 Enoch, MdB’s flagship example of “cosmic” apocalyptic, we have seen important elements of “forensic” track. Similarly, 4 Ezra, MdB’s “nearly ‘pure'” example of the “forensic” track, contains explicit elements of “cosmic” apocalyptic eschatology. MdB’s claim that “there are no cosmological powers present in the apocalypse of 4 Ezra” is quite difficult to sustain when faced with the eagle vision in 4 Ezra 11.[3]

MdB himself avers that “the two tracks can…run side by side, crisscross, or overlap in various ways, even in the same work.”[4] MdB sees the DSS as evincing this sort of overlap; my claim is that the overlap happens also in his ‘purest’ examples. Because the tracks crisscross in even the purest examples, perhaps it is time to rethink the typology. In place of “tracks,” I wonder if we might better describe “cosmic” and “forensic” as complementary leitmotifs in Jewish apocalyptic. This would go a long way in helping us appreciate the best insights of JLM and MdB without deploying their categories too rigidly in our reading of Galatians.

[1] Martinus C. de Boer, “Paul and Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology,” in Apocalyptic and the New Testament: Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn, ed. Joel Marcus and Marion L. Soards, JSNTSup 24 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 176, 181.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Ibid., 179.

[4] Ibid., 177.

Featured image: Aramaic Fragments of 1 Enoch (4QEna [4Q201]).

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting my engagement with some of the “big ideas” in Galatians studies in preparation for a comprehensive exam.

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