Book reviews

Portier-Young, A.E. Apocalypse against Empire – Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

Apocalypse against Empire discusses Jewish resistance against Seleucid imperial rule at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE recorded in three of the earliest Jewish apocalyptic documents: a) the book Daniel of the Hebrew Bible, b) the Apocalypse of Weeks and c) the Book of Dreams, the last two (b and c) being parts of the Jewish pseudepigraphical book 1 Enoch.

The first part of Apocalypse against Empire theorizes on resistance, with a clear discussion of domination and hegemony (the latter being the ‘softer’, less tangible component of imperial rule) and the introduction of the ‘state terror’ notion. The latter notion, borrowed from modern political scholarship, is highly attractive, but in the epilogue the author mentions the methodological frailty of the application of this modern notion to events of Antiquity.
A shortcoming of this theoretical part is that the author doesn’t answer the question of what prompted the Jews to write their first apocalypses at precisely the time they were resisting Seleucid oppression. In other words: in what respect was Seleucid rule so different from earlier foreign rule that the Jews resorted at exactly that time to encode their resistance narratives?

Part two on Seleucid domination in Judea is the most elucidating part of this work. The desecration of the Jerusalem temple in 167 BCE, the Maccabean revolt and the reconsecration of the temple in 164 CE are the political/religious highlights of the era. However, Portier-Young extensively describes the complex imperial and local political situation in the preceding decades, which elucidates the actions of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV and the subsequent events.

Part three discusses the three above-mentioned texts. The anti-Seleucid character of every word and phrase of these writings is meticulously shown. Not surprisingly for a theologian, the emphasis of the analysis is theological, in contrast with the more politically oriented second part of this book. One conspicuous element of this ‘theologising’ analysis is the reluctant discussion of the theme of violence. The author ends her conclusion with the great vision of the future which the writers of these apocalyptic resistance texts offered their readers: a never-ending era of justice, righteousness and joy for humankind, Judea and Jerusalem. Highly attractive as this prospect may have been, the way to achieve it was ruthlessly reversing the positions of dominator and dominated. This element of large-scale violent revenge to achieve a Jewish imperial position, which allowed for the oppression and exploitation of the former oppressor(s) is, in turn, neglected.

In the epilogue, the author formulates suggestions for further research. While reading this book I hoped to find references to later apocalyptic writings, in particular to Revelation, the Synoptic Apocalypse and the final chapter of the Didache, but Portier-Young never expands her scope to these early Christian apocalyptic writings. Nor does she include the study of possible links with these important early Christian apocalypses in her suggestions for further research. Does the relationship between the anti-Seleucid and these later apocalypses contain a threat? While Portier-Young persuasively shows that the early apocalypses under consideration are fully anti-Seleucid, studied side by side, the anti-Seleucid and early Christian apocalypses might yield the conclusion that the early Christian apocalypses were taking a fully anti-Roman stance. Maybe the study of the position of the oppressor and the oppressed in the context of the beginnings of Christianity is still too sensitive.