September 21, 2019

Apocalyptic = Resistance Literature

Apocalyptic Skies (2016)

I’ve just started reading Portier-Young, so this is very introductory.

Anathea E. Portier-Young has written a well-received book on apocalyptic literature in the time of Second Temple Judaism called Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism.

Her main thesis is to reinforce and emphasize a long understood aspect of the genre. Apocalyptic had a social purpose, originating as resistance literature in a time of imperial power, hegemony, and domination.

As John Collins says in his foreword:

Apocalyptic literature has often been stereotyped as otherworldly. Portier-Young makes a persuasive case that it is deeply immersed in political reality and cannot be properly understood without seeing it against the foil of Hellenistic imperial rule.

The author herself puts it this way:

The reign of Antiochus marked a turning point in the history of Judaism for another reason that, though rarely remarked upon, is no less momentous. For during this period emerged a new literary genre, the historical apocalypse, and with it an apocalyptic worldview and consciousness that would become enormously influential in the history of Judaism and Christianity alike. Why this genre at this moment? What is the relationship between apocalypse and empire?

I argue that the first Jewish apocalypses emerged as a literature of resistance to empire. Empire claimed the power to order the world. It exercised this power through force, but also through propaganda and ideology. Empire manipulated and co-opted hegemonic social institutions to express and reinforce its values and cosmology. Resisting imperial domination required challenging not only the physical means of coercion, but also empire’s claims about knowledge and the world. The first apocalypses did precisely this.

I’m looking forward to understanding more about this, but in light of our conversations this week, Portier-Young reinforces my suspicion that apocalyptic literature at least originated not as futuristic prophecy about “the end of the world,” but as a social-theological response to this-world realities, giving guidance about how to resist in both thought and action the powers that held sway over people of faith.

Comments

  1. senecagriggs says

    “Empire manipulated and co-opted hegemonic social institutions to express and reinforce its values and cosmology. Resisting imperial domination required challenging not only the physical means of coercion, but also empire’s claims about knowledge and the world. The first apocalypses did precisely this.”

    Huh?

    • “Empire manipulated and co-opted hegemonic social institutions to express and reinforce its values and cosmology.”

      In other words, the Romans appropriated cultural, social, and religious elements to reinforce its authority in the areas it ruled. Much as any overarching power has done in history, and is done still today.

      “Resisting imperial domination required challenging not only the physical means of coercion, but also empire’s claims about knowledge and the world.”

      IOW, you not only had to fight the Roman legions, you had to fight the idea that Rome (and especially the Emperor) deserved to rule due to its power, its superior values, and the claims of its gods. I.E. a war of ideas.

    • Allow me to translate from academic to colloquial speak. Opposing Empire meant not just opposing it’s tactics and methods of enforcing it’s views but also opposing it’s way of thinking about the world. Part of this attempt? Apocalyptic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When you hear “Empire”, think “Superpower”.
      And all the Manifest Destiny that comes with the territory.

      • Robert F says

        When some people (just to be clear — I’m not one of them) today hear “Empire”, they will think “Globalism”. The language of apocalyptic, understood in this way, can point in more than one direction.

    • LOL. I had to read it a couple times to understand it, too.

  2. I am familiar with Prof Portier-Young’s thesis though I haven’t read her book. It is a common view among critical NT scholars. Beneath al the apocalyptic biblical scenarios lie specific historical situations. The imagery of apocalyptic literature seems bizarre to us because we don’t know the “language”. But the intended audience would have gotten it. If it makes sense we have a lot of folks, especially since the nineteenth century, who are pretending to translate one language into another without understanding the original language at all. The short version? Apocalyptic is not about the future. It’s about the Eternal Present. Meaning the fight we’re fighting now (whether now is ancient Rome or present day America) is part of a fight taking place in the cosmic realm.

    ps I grew up in the 70s during the Hal Lindsey “Late Great Planet Earth” furor. Alas, Mr Lindsey’s work stands in relation to critical NT scholarship the same way Erich Van Daniken’s ideas about ancient astronauts stands in relation to the critical study of ancient history. As the saying goes, they’re not even wrong. Popular, yes.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Alas, Mr Lindsey’s work stands in relation to critical NT scholarship the same way Erich Van Daniken’s ideas about ancient astronauts stands in relation to the critical study of ancient history.

      But “Mr Lindsay’s work” IS word-for-word from GOD’S LIPS(TM)!!!! HISTORY WRITTEN IN ADVANCE BY GOD HIMSELF(TM)!!!! IT”S ALL GONNA BURN(TM)!!!!! DON’T TAKE THE MARK(TM)!!!!!

      It wasn’t until I’d completely detoxed from my time in-country that I realized what “Mr Lindsay’s work” really was. He took the post-Cuban Missile Crisis trope of “Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War”, gave it a Christian coat of paint as the Direct Word of God (“It’s Prophesied, It’s Prophesied”), and added the Rapture Escape Hatch. Not only did he make some real good bank on the popularity, but so did Papa Chuck of Calvary Chapel and all those Turn-or-Burn Scare ‘Em Into the Kingdom altar-call Witnessings.

  3. john barry says

    Sencagriggs, you co opted my usual response but to be politically correct my response is usually ?

    Actually in today ‘s world we have the CRT, Critical Race Theory, that is in the same ballpark that is another idea that I often go ? trying to grasp the concept. To me in a nutshell and what other shell would I like?, the old saying “the winner writes the history: or the winner makes the rules would be similar to the emergence of a new concept of life and ultimate victory. This is my own theory so do not race to be critical of it.

    The power of social forces is the spread , power and respect the Hellenized Jews had in the society.
    So many events influence society, literature and history

    • Robert F says

      Although I don’t share your politics, I can easily see how apocalyptic as understood in the post could be seen by you and those that agree with your politics as a literature of Jewish national resistance against the “globalist” aspirations of the Roman Empire. It all depends on how “imperial power, hegemony, and domination” are understood in different historical contexts.

      • john barry says

        Robert F. I do not think the Maccabees were worried about globalization of power just that Antiochus was a threat to the Jewish religion, lifestyle and culture actually the nation. As noted by the author it is not only military and economic might that must be dealt with the Jews becoming Hellenistic and the Jewish culture and religion being taken not by force but by Jewish acceptance. If the Greeks had left the Jews completely alone they would not have risen up to stop Greek dominance of the world. Greek took over the world by force but mostly by people wanting to be Hellenistic whereas the Romans had to use force to sustain their status.

        The real end of the world as the Jews believed was of course the beast from the 7 hills of Rome. 70 AD was the end of their nation and to them the apocalypse . Every stone upturned and banished out to the world until 1947.

        I think I am agreeing with the author and CM but I am never sure what I am thinking until all the voices in my head get together and have a conference.

        • Robert F says

          I didn’t mean to suggest the the Jewish leaders or people of the time were worried about globalization, only that they formed a nationalistic religious movement of resistance (or a number of them) to the more “internationalist” ambitions of the Empire.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I understand in the original language, “Apocalypse” referred to “making visible what is hidden”, NOT “predicting the (Dark — No, DARKER!!!!) future”.

    • Christiane says

      well, the Book of Revelation is called the Apocalypse in Catholicism, so I think you’re right that it means making visible what is hidden

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Then there’s the Mel Gibson art film set in Yucatan circa 1500 AD, which hit both meanings of the word….

        “He will lead you to Those who will End Your World.”

        • Christiane says

          oh, THAT film, Headless!

          gruesome indeed . . . all that ‘culture’, the great pyramids, all run by feeding their ‘god’ with human blood

          I hear that the war drums are beating for Iran, the home country of some dear people I have known, and soon the Emperor will want to play with his toy military at the urging of that dolt Bolton and the blood will flow again as it always does when the crazies are stronger than the Sanes

          wasn’t the periodic blood-letting to the NRA god enough???? (sigh)

          well, be it as it may, none of our people are safe anymore in this land from the blood-letting purges as the crazy beguiles the Fearful into silence and the Sanes turn resolutely to RESISTANCE

          (how am I doing with ‘apocalyptic language?) 🙂

          • Consider the Bank believing evangelicals – many in high government positions – who feed dispensational theology into our foreign policy and war-making, and you have God acting in the service of Scofield. I am so fearful of their lighting the world ablaze by forcing the Kingdom of God, as they interpret it. We are seeing the imminentizing of the eschaton in a.very dangerous way.

            • Bible believing , sorry. Auto-spell made a Freudian slip…

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              1) “Immientizing the Eschaton” = JUMP-START ARMAGEDDON.
              (“It’s Prophesied! It’s Prophesied!”)

              2) Four words from my time in-country:
              CHRISTIANS FOR NUCLEAR WAR. (“It’s Prophesied! It’s Prophesied!”)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I’ve heard that. I am skeptical of putting a single precise definition on a word; words don’t work that way. Definitions, especially over periods of time [maybe even just decades], can wander, widen, and narrow quite a bit.

  5. senecagriggs says

    Stephen, Eeyore, Ken, thanks for the clarification

  6. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “but as a social-theological response to this-world realities”

    There is no shortage of people who read Apocalypse literature that way today, as critique.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There is also no shortage of people who read it as a Plain and Clear Checklist of History Written in Advance.

  7. Dana Ames says

    “a social-theological response to this-world realities”

    …which the first Christians, with what they believed about what God was up to in who Jesus was and what he did, viewed as actually having happened in the cosmic realm, with significant ramifications for people here and now. [See N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the People of God” and “Jesus and the Victory of God”.] They read **back** into Scripture and had an “ah-ha moment”: “THAT’S the picture these writings were painting of Jesus the Messiah and what he accomplished!” They didn’t see those Scriptures as “prophecy=future events” until after the fact. They also understood that the writings did refer to what was going on in this world at the time; they could hold the two views as separate kinds of things, not being contradictory to one another.

    There’s a lot of apocalyptic literature that was floating around in 1st century Judea, to which Christians looked for imagery and considered significant, that did not end up in the New Testament – but it’s difficult to understand some of the New Testament without knowing that those apocalyptic writings existed and contributed to what we have in the Bible. Looking forward to CM’s review of this book.

    Dana

  8. Rick Ro. says

    My mind has been mulling on this post for a hour or so.

    So is “apocalyptic language” of God, or is it a man-made concept, or is it a man-made concept INSPIRED by God? In other words, did man “create” the idea as a form of “resistance to the empire,” or is “resistance to the empire” something God wanted conveyed so He planted the idea in man’s head (who then turned it into “apocalyptic language”)…?

    Interesting to think about, at least for me…LOL…

    • Well, unless you accept the fact that the Jewish apocalypses in the intertestamental period were also “inspired,” then no — it is not some special “language of God,” at least not in the way many conservative Christians would suggest.

      I had a friend in seminary that I also went to Bible school with, who had a hard time adjusting to thinking about apocalyptic (especially in Revelation) as a genre of literature and not necessarily the actual report of a “vision” or some other supernatural divine intervention. We both had come from a strict inerrantist Bible college that didn’t talk much about the human side of scripture.

      • Rick Ro. says

        –> “We both had come from a strict inerrantist Bible college that didn’t talk much about the human side of scripture.”

        I imagine some people’s heads would explode when reading that comment…LOL…

  9. Christiane says

    the first Apocalypse: imagine on what strange planet a poor crucified carpenter in an outlying province could conquer the greatest Empire of His day
    . . . ‘He is Risen’ were/are/will be words of infinitely powerful persuasion as in those ancient days
    and in this new era of a dying planet . . . may the last sound heard on this sad Earth be the ‘Alleluia’ and not a whimper