Question: "What is the Apocalypse of Baruch?"
Answer: Baruch was the scribe of Jeremiah the prophet who faithfully recorded Jeremiah’s prophecies leading up to the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 32:12; 36:26). Baruch became the subject of Jewish legends around the time of Christ, with several popular pseudepigraphal works in circulation. The Apocalypse of Baruch can refer to either of two of these documents: the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, also known as 2 Baruch, or the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, or 3 Baruch.
Both 2 Baruch and 3 Baruch claim to be written by Baruch, but both were written centuries after his death. They are set around the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC and explore how Judaism can persist without a temple. In reality, both books known as the Apocalypse of Baruch were written after the sacking of Jerusalem by Roman forces in AD 70. One can understand why the Jews would be grappling with themes of God’s faithfulness and justice after the horrible events of that time. Let’s explore both of these fascinating books individually:
The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, or 2 Baruch, was likely written in the second half of the first century. If it was written this early, then it was probably compiled contemporaneously with the New Testament, making 2 Baruch a window into Jewish thought during the time of the apostles. It is called the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch because it is only extant in one Syriac manuscript, dated to the sixth century AD. This manuscript appears to be a translation from Greek, which may have originally been translated from Hebrew. The real author is unknown. Some scholars believe that the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch was compiled from various Jewish writers, while others believe that one author wrote the entire book.
Technically, only part of the Syriac Apocalypse is an apocalypse proper: the last nine chapters actually claim to be an epistle from Baruch to certain tribes of Israel. These chapters are collectively known as the Letter of Baruch and are considered canon in the Syriac Orthodox Church. Some scholars argue that the Letter of Baruch is a separate work that was stitched onto the Apocalypse by later editors, but many scholars view it as an original part of the book.
As mentioned, the setting of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The author writes from the perspective of Baruch, who receives visions from God and proclaims them to Jeremiah and the Jews of Jerusalem. Baruch struggles to reconcile the faithfulness and justice of God with the destruction of Jerusalem. Through divine revelations, he learns of God’s eschatological intentions and the chastening of the Jews due to sin. Ultimately, Baruch learns to trust God’s grand plan.
Like 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch claims to record visions received by Jeremiah’s scribe after the destruction of Solomon’s temple. The book is preserved in Greek and Old Church Slavonic manuscripts. While the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch was probably originally written in Greek, the Slavonic translation may be more accurate than the late Greek copies we possess. It is hard to nail down the date of composition, but many scholars date it to sometime in the second century AD. Like 2 Baruch, the true author/compiler is unknown. Several parts of 3 Baruch bear distinct marks of later edits, and some are explicitly and jarringly pro-Christian. Unlike 2 Baruch, no church tradition views any part of 3 Baruch as canonical.
In the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe is tormented by the recent destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. As he cries out to God, he is taken up to heaven by an angel and shown “the mysteries of God” (3 Baruch 1.8). Baruch is led through multiple layers of heaven, witnessing bizarre creatures and strange circumstances. God’s justice is ultimately vindicated, and Baruch realizes that all is not lost with the destruction of Jerusalem. Similar to 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch allows second-century Jews to grapple with the loss of their temple and country through the lens of the Babylonian conquest, encouraging trust in God’s faithfulness and sovereignty.
In summary, the Apocalypse of Baruch refers to two separate works: the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch and the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch. Both books falsely claim to be written by Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70, Jews were left reeling. What did this mean for God’s sovereignty and faithfulness? Were His promises still reliable? How can Jews continue to practice their faith without a temple? The Apocalypse of Baruch seeks to answer those questions through creative visions and historical precedent, reminding Jewish readers that they are not the first generation to endure the destruction of Jerusalem. While they are not canonical, authoritative, or divinely inspired, 2 and 3 Baruch provide insight into historical Jewish thought and reveal a traumatized people struggling with their identity and faith.