Using the Master's Tools to Shore Up Another's House: A Postcolonial Analysis of 4 Maccabees

By deSilva, David A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Using the Master's Tools to Shore Up Another's House: A Postcolonial Analysis of 4 Maccabees


deSilva, David A., Journal of Biblical Literature


(ProQuest-CSA LLC: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

The past fifteen years have witnessed an explosion of studies in biblical criticism and criticism of the history of interpretation that are generally held together under the rubric of "postcolonial studies" or "postcolonial criticism."1 These are written largely, though by no means exclusively, by biblical scholars who belong to a minority group in a Western culture or who live in a country not considered part of the dominant culture of the "Western world," such as Asia, Africa, or Latin America. That it is a "hermeneutic" rather than another exegetical "method" is clear from the ways in which some of its most noted practitioners describe the approach.2 Postcolonial interpretation has been described as "a mental attitude rather than a method, more a subversive stance towards the dominant knowledge than a school of thought."3 Another of its prominent practitioners has described it metaphorically as an optic, a lens through which to take a new look at Scripture and the way it has been, and can be, interpreted and used in real-life political and social situations.4

This lens has most frequently been employed to examine the use of the Bible and its interpretation as a means of advancing Eurocentric agendas and legitimating the hegemony of Western Europe and its partners, both in situations of formal imperialism and in the lingering aftermath of "empire."5 The "mental attitude" has also contributed greatly to the reversal of the devaluation of indigenous cultures that accompanies imperialism, and to the construction of an alternative hermeneutics that honors the culture, experience, and reading and interpretative strategies of non-Western peoples.6

While many practitioners focus the postcolonial lens on the analysis of how Scripture has been read and interpreted in particular situations, and on the analysis of particular readers of Scripture, I do not want to lose sight of the first level of analysis that, according to Fernando Segovia, postcolonial interpretation invites, namely, the analysis of imperialism or colonialism in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures (and related literature) themselves.7 How does the author of the text depict "empire"? How does the author present the "colonized" peoples? Does the author speak from the margins or from the center of power? Does the author speak on behalf of empire, legitimating it or advancing its interests (e.g., in the OT conquest and monarchical narratives), or creating spaces for resistance and the affirmation of an alternative set of interests (e.g., in the extreme, Revelation)?

This study holds 4 Maccabees beneath this lens and asks these questions of its author, who appears at first blush to be so fully accommodated to the dominant culture that he cannot think about his own heritage apart from the master's categories but on closer inspection reveals himself to be an author of resistance literature, subjecting empire to trenchant critique, opposing the devaluing of the culture and way of life of the colonized ethnos of which he is a member, and promoting a model for effective resistance in his narration of the victory of the nine martyrs over the foreign king for widespread imitation by his audience.

I. IN A GREEK CITY OF A ROMAN EMPIRE: THE AUTHOR IN HIS SETTING

The author and addressees share the experience of Roman imperialism in the midst of a region long exposed to Greek cultural imperialism. They are members of an ethnos that had been subjected to the control of one empire or another for almost seven centuries.8 Even the period of so-called political independence enjoyed by the Hasmonean dynasty was an independence granted and maintained through negotiation with imperial powers, and marked by the ongoing experience of cultural imperialism as hellenization continued throughout Judea and the eastern Mediterranean as a whole.9 The formal arrangements of Roman imperialism overlay this older and thoroughly pervasive cultural imperialism throughout the region from which this text originates. …

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