Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism


A fresh and daring take on ancient apocalyptic books. The year 167 b.c.e. marked the beginning of a period of intense persecution for the people of Judea, as Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted -- forcibly and brutally -- to eradicate traditional Jewish religious practices. In Apocalypse against Empire Anathea Portier-Young reconstructs the historical events and key players in this traumatic episode in Jewish history and provides a sophisticated treatment of resistance in early Judaism. Building on a solid contextual foundation, Portier-Young argues that the first Jewish apocalypses emerged as a literature of resistance to Hellenistic imperial rule. She makes a sturdy case for this argument by examining three extant apocalypses, giving careful attention to the interplay between social theory, history, textual studies, and theological analysis. In particular, Portier-Young contends, the book of Daniel, the Apocalypse of Weeks, and the Book of Dreams were written to supply an oppressed people with a potent antidote to the destructive propaganda of the empire -- renewing their faith in the God of the covenant and answering state terror with radical visions of hope..


The last half century has seen intense, if sporadic, study of early Jewish apocalyptic literature. Much of this study has been literary. We have attained a clearer grasp of the apocalyptic genre and of the traditional associations of apocalyptic symbolism. We have also made important advances in the sociological study of apocalypticism, inspired in part by Paul Hanson’s groundbreaking study, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Fortress Press, 1975) and the lively debate it stimulated, but also by the broader interest in apocalypticism as a social phenomenon at the end of the twentieth century. Scholars have long recognized that apocalyptic literature originated as resistance literature, even if was sometimes co-opted for other purposes in the course of history. We must admit, however, that the study of the social function of apocalyptic writings has lagged somewhat in relation to literary and historico-traditional studies.

Anathea Portier-Young bids fair to redress this situation in this sweeping and learned work. She breaks new ground in two important respects.

First, she has read widely in the theoretical literature on the subjects of imperial power and resistance thereto. As a result, she brings to this subject a degree of sophistication that has been lacking in previous biblical scholarship on the subject. She sees the exercise of power as a complex phenomenon, sometimes mediated by brute force but often by symbolism and ritual. Equally, resistance is not simplistic rejection but may involve selective appropriation or subversion of the ideology of the dominant power. Both the exercise of power and resistance are processes of negotiation, and each may take a range of forms.

Second, Portier-Young has immersed herself in the study of the Seleucid empire in a way that biblical scholars seldom do. Not since the early work of Martin Hengel have we seen such a thick description of Seleucid history and politics in the context of biblical scholarship. Building on the work of such scholars as John Ma, she views the Seleucid empire in terms of its strategies of . . .

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