These three similar sounding words are notoriously confusing. You may recognise ‘the Apocrypha’ as the collection of books founds in Roman Catholic Bibles but not in Protestant Bibles (e.g. Judith, Tobit, Maccabees). They were written during the time between the Old and New Testaments, not considered part of the Hebrew Scriptures – yet they were valuable writings. The church called them ‘deutero-canonical’, a second-tier to the canon of Scripture.
So when the printing press came along, allowing whole Bibles to be printed in one volume, the question arose: should these books be included? Catholics and Protestants disagreed.
The word apocrypha literally means ‘to hide away’; these books were variously prized, tolerated, or excluded over the centuries. Detractors sometimes vilified them as ‘inauthentic’ Scriptures, thus the gradual use of ‘apocryphal’ to signify something untrue or disingenuous – a deeply misleading critique of these valuable writings. Whatever your view, ‘the Apocrypha’ has nothing to do with our other two words!
Apocalyptic is a unique genre of literature, somewhat rare in the Bible, but very common in the intertestamental period and early Christianity. It’s also a complex word, referring to either:
- Apocalyptic literature
- The imagery, symbolism and metaphorical language associated with that literature – often including cosmic destruction or the end of the age (Mt 24:29-31; Rev 6:12-14)
- A world-view outlook or expectation of the end of the present world
Scholars suggest Jesus adopted the second, not the third. The book of Revelation is the best example of apocalyptic, along with much of Daniel. Its symbolic language is rooted in Prophetic tradition, often connected with God’s wrath, the Day of the Lord, and coming destruction. As a genre, apocalyptic is associated with visionary, other-worldly experiences, and angelic messages.
Its language is rife with symbolism and enigmatic interpretations. Its authorship is pseudonymous (using historical personages like Enoch or Moses to give spiritual authority) but Revelation is the exception, naming John as the visionary author. Nevertheless, Luther and many others thought Revelation should never have been included in the New Testament!
And finally, apocalypse. It literally means, ‘to reveal’, as in something that was hidden, now made known. Revelation is merely the modern English word for apocalypse! But because we’ve wrongly associated Revelation’s message with cosmic destruction and the end of the world, the meaning of ‘apocalypse’ has changed, covering anything from nuclear holocaust and post-civilization survival to the zombie apocalypse. Sad but true.