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Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (review)

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 53, 2012
pp. 396-399 | 10.1353/hbr.2012.0024

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In Apocalypse Against Empire, Portier-Young integrates sociological studies of resistance theory, historical analysis of the Seleucid domination in Judea, and specific texts within apocalyptic literature in order to determine an informed theological interpretation of these texts as apocalypses vis-à-vis resistance movement. Her work focuses on the book of Daniel and Enochic literature, specifically the Apocalypse of Weeks and the Book of Dreams.

Portier-Young begins with an overview of resistance theory, emphasizing those points that pertain to the historical setting in which these apocalyptic texts were written. Here, she carefully defines terminology that is systematically employed throughout the book, as well as providing a helpful framework from earlier scholarship in resistance theory. She focuses on the differences, but also consistent interplay between hegemony and domination—methods regularly utilized in imperial conquest. From there, she justifies the concept of early apocalyptic texts as contributions to resistance through their intention to reveal the reality of a power greater than that displayed within the structures of imperial false sovereignty. She further argues that apocalypses recognize the human tendency to display consistent integration between belief and practice. Thus, functionally, apocalypses intend to shape the thinking of their readers in order to provide a reasonable basis for resistant actions.

After establishing her methodological approach, Portier-Young moves to a detailed description of the Seleucid empire and its control over Judea in the second century B.C.E. , including attention to current historians in the field and the most recent analysis of archeological evidence. She makes the compelling argument that in order to understand the context in which the early apocalypses were written, one must go beyond the final edict of terror by Antiochus IV. In supporting her theory, she identifies elements of tension in the larger history that ultimately moved people toward a mind-set of resistance, including the earliest imperial ideology of rule via conquest, and initial steps by Antiochus III to establish authority over the Judean way of life. Portier-Young concludes that this prior history converged with the immediate personal needs of Antiochus IV, a man politically pressed and humiliated by Rome, thus moving him to re-create his own empire through the reconquest of Judea. He attempted this by a calculated plan to demonstrate power first through de-creation and then re-creation of Judea. The resultant terrorization of the Judean people ultimately formed the conditions of resistance that found its voice in apocalyptic writings, which countered the perceived power of Antiochus IV to re-create the world by reasserting the more potent sovereign power of the divine.

Following her analysis of historical setting, Portier-Young moves to textual interpretation. Her general approach counters that of some earlier perspectives, which understood apocalypses as attempts by marginalized people to escape the difficulties of persecution by retreating into a secretive, visionary world. Portier-Young takes the opposite understanding with her view of apocalypses as intentional efforts to exhort readers toward personal engagement with a troubling present reality by taking responsibility for social transformation through resistance. She further argues that apocalyptic writers displayed sophisticated literary skill, education, and an empowered desire to communicate their political views of resistance to a large audience, rather than intending secrecy.

In her analysis of the book of Daniel, Portier-Young begins with a detailed overview of recent scholarly work that has considered the book as resistance literature. She ultimately concludes that the book is designed to take the reader from personal identification with a former hero who used nonviolent methods of resistance against an empire to direct associations with themes obviously related to the agenda of Antiochus IV (faithfulness to worship practices even at the risk of martyrdom; expectation of divine deliverance which asserted God's sovereign ordering of time in the face of imperial attempts of de-creation). Most importantly, the character Daniel recedes in the concluding chapters of the book, requiring the readers to understand that its final exhortations for resistance are to be taken up by their own generation.

In her analysis of the Enochic literature, Portier-Young focuses on a cosmology that places God as the possessor of ultimate power over both judgment and spatial organization (thus placing divine dominion over that...

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