Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism

by Anathea E. Portier-Young

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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…  See more details below


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..

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Editorial Reviews

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“Make no mistake about it: this is a landmark study. It is theoretically informed and sophisticated, broad-ranging and erudite, historically aware, and hermeneutically sensitive. It breaks new ground in the field and should be required reading for anyone interested in early Jewish apocalyptic literature.”
— Choon-Leong Seow
Princeton Theological Seminary

“Anathea Portier-Young’s bold proposal demonstrates how the earliest Jewish apocalypses conjured diverse strategies for resistance against imperial power. Her judicious, sometimes daring, application of resistance theories to the historiography of Seleucid Judea sets a challenging precedent for future research. In that cauldron of cultural and political conflict, the apocalypses emerge as creative vehicles for counterimperial theologizing.”
— Greg Carey
Lancaster Theological Seminary

“Apocalypse against Empire portrays the Second Temple Jewish narrative of hope and survival, resistance and courage, with sensitivity and insight. Scholars and students will appreciate the careful research and fresh approach in this beautifully written book.”
— Sharon Pace
Marquette University

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism
By Anathea E. Portier-Young

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Anathea E. Portier-Young
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6598-4

Chapter One

Theorizing Resistance

Theology or Theologies of Resistance?

In the title of this book I borrow and modify a phrase from Rainer Albertz's History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. In a section titled "Late prophetic and apocalyptic theology of resistance," Albertz identifies in the Hellenistic period "a new apocalyptic theology of resistance" that grows naturally out of the "revolutionary force intrinsic to Yahweh religion from its beginnings." This theology emerges among those who are deeply aware of and also challenged by "sometimes painful political contradictions in the reality of Hellenistic Israel, at home and abroad." That is, for Albertz, the experience of the contradiction between the claims of Yahwism and the claims of the Hellenistic rulers catalyzes the growth of a new theology that equips its adherents for the work of political and, later, social resistance. The key to this theology is its extension and transformation of liberation traditions into an "eschatological religion of redemption."

Albertz's formulation of a singular "apocalyptic theology of resistance" underscores the theological common ground between such works as Daniel, the Apocalypse of Weeks, and the Book of Dreams, drawing particular attention to what is theologically new in this group of works, namely elements of a shared apocalyptic worldview. In this chapter, I explain why this apocalyptic vision of the world was especially suited for the work of resistance to the Hellenistic rulers in the period following Alexander's conquest of Judea in 332 BCE, particularly at the point, beginning in 167 BCE, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to annul the very covenantal basis of the Jewish religion. During the persecution, competing demands for absolute loyalty rested on competing claims to absolute power and competing visions and constructions of reality. The apocalyptic worldview envisioned a radical relocation of power and in this way redefined the possible and the real, thus clarifying the context for action and empowering the work of resistance. The apocalypses studied in this volume hold this view in common.

Yet we should not so quickly assume that this common ground spells one theology. Albertz himself notes the patent theological differences between Daniel and the Animal Apocalypse (contained within the Book of Dreams): "The theological struggle which became visible between the Hebrew book of Daniel and 1 Enoch 85–90 makes it clear that the dispute over the proper way to assess the painful present and the right alternatives of action for the future was fought out in the Maccabaean period essentially on the ground of apocalyptic theology." As Albertz notes here, theology, interpretation (in this case of the present circumstances), and right action are inextricably intertwined. In our sources we find not one apocalyptic theology of resistance (nor can we posit one, unitary "apocalyptic theology" as such), but multiple theologies of resistance. Moreover, while 1 and 2 Maccabees do not give us unmediated access to the theology of resisters, we nonetheless find evidence in these texts of alternate, nonapocalyptic theologies of resistance at work during this period.

Conceptualizing Resistance

Forms of Resistance

Many studies of resistance proceed without defining the term, instead describing its forms, the conditions in which they take shape, and their relationship to systems of domination. An obvious, and extreme, form of resistance that frequently attracts scholarly attention (as it does in this study) is the revolt, rebellion, or revolution. In their introduction to the edited volume Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash identify a tendency in earlier scholarship on resistance to focus on these obvious, extreme, and often violent forms of resistance. James C. Scott notes a parallel tendency in studies of peasantry, in which "much attention has been devoted to organized, large-scale, protest movements that appear, if only momentarily, to pose a threat to the state."

Yet while revolt or organized protest movements occur relatively infrequently, the phenomenon of resistance is widespread. In Weapons of the Weak, Scott calls attention to forms of "everyday" resistance that are less dramatic, if more frequent, and harder for the historian to spot. Scott is interested in the forms of resistance by which members of an oppressed or weaker group can gain or maintain privileges, goods, rights, and freedoms in a system in which they have little ascribed power. As examples of these forms he offers "foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, [and] sabotage." Scott's resisters are not interested in overthrow of government structures, nor do they agitate openly for social change. Yet they do struggle, not only to secure and maintain a way of life but also to name their world and narrate who they are. Of the people in the pseudonymous village of Sedaka, where Scott conducted his fieldwork, Scott writes: "The struggle between rich and poor in Sedaka is not merely a struggle over work, property rights, grain, and cash. It is also a struggle over the appropriation of symbols, a struggle over how the past and present shall be understood and labeled, a struggle to identify causes and assess blame, a contentious effort to give partisan meaning to local history." Thus, while their ambitions may seem modest by comparison with their revolutionary counterparts, Scott takes great pains to demonstrate that they have not simply swallowed whole the hegemonic discourse of their oppressors. They have their own discourse, too, and they fight — quietly, audible only to one another — to assert its validity.

In Search of a Definition

The two poles of armed revolt and silent foot-dragging mark endpoints on a spectrum of resistance. Goals range from overthrow or replacement of structures of domination to maintenance of threatened structures of security. What do they share? I consider three definitions of resistance, highlighting elements in each that will be useful for analyzing Jewish responses to Hellenistic rule in general and to Antiochus's persecution in particular.

Resistance Limits Power

A very simple definition comes from J. M. Barbalet, who, in his essay "Power and Resistance," emphasizes the necessary relationship between resistance and power. Barbalet accepts and expounds Max Weber's understanding of power as "the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests." In light of this definition, and drawing on the work of Barry Hindess on the limitations of power in social contexts, Barbalet develops a concept of resistance as "those factors which in limiting the exercise of power contribute to the outcome of the power relation." While this definition is essentially a formal one, Barbalet insists on the necessity of analyzing the social relations in any given context.

Barbalet's emphasis on the necessary structural relation between resistance and power provides a helpful starting point for understanding resistance in the present study. Each of the texts I examine participates in a radical relocation of ultimate power, countering imperial claims to ultimate power by asserting God's power and power given by God to the faithful. The apocalyptic writings take great pains to demonstrate the limits of temporal power (e.g., Dan 2 and 7; 1 En. 89:59–90:25). They do not deny the power of the empires, but they portray this power as partial, contingent, and finite. Those who exercise it are subject to the greater power of God and held accountable through divine judgment. The narration of the supernatural attack on Heliodorus in 2 Maccabees 3:25-28 conveys the same message: despite his magnificent retinue and bodyguard, the imperial agent Heliodorus is rendered helpless ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the face of God's sovereign power ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). While the narratives of 1 Maccabees do not portray this power through the appearance of heavenly beings, yet Heaven (the book's primary title for God) is the acknowledged source of strength and victory (1 Macc 3:19, 50-53). Recollections of miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea and during Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem (as in 2 Kgs 19:35, Judas here attributes this deliverance to an angel who slaughters 185,000 Assyrian soldiers) instill confidence in God's power over the great empires (1 Macc 4:9; 7:41). By contrast to the power that Heaven confers on the faithful from generation to generation (2:61), the ephemeral persecutor will return to dust (2:63). In each of these texts the relocation of ultimate power from earth to heaven makes it possible both to imagine and engage in effective resistance.

Intentions and Actions

A second definition comes from Klaas van Walraven and Jon Abbink, who emphasize intention and action in their understanding of resistance. They define resistance as "intentions and concrete actions taken to oppose others and refuse to accept their ideas, actions, or positions for a variety of reasons, the most common being the perception of the position, claims, or actions taken by others as unjust, illegitimate, or intolerable attempts at domination." Their emphasis on perceptions of injustice may owe to Barrington Moore Jr.'s influential study Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. Moore attends to what he considers to be the tragic and vast "human capacity to withstand suffering and abuse," in light of which it becomes all the more important to examine "under what conditions and why do human beings cease to put up with it." These questions are relevant for the present study as well. Attention to the difficult conditions of Judeans under Seleucid rule prior to the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which I analyze in chapters 2–5, illuminates the multiple sources of strain on this population while also helping us to understand why resistance took the forms it did when it did. While our evidence for radical resistance in the years preceding the persecution is more limited, it is important to recognize that such resistance did exist (see, e.g., Dan 11:14). Yet the larger scale and broader spectrum of resistance during the years of the persecution focus our attention more narrowly on the persecution itself as — for those who resisted — an intolerable challenge to the religion, way of life, and identity of Judeans who worshiped Yhwh.

Indeed, for Van Walraven and Abbink, resistance is defined not by its forms, whether violent or nonviolent, "radical" or "everyday," but rather by its intentions to defend that which is threatened, whether ideals, power structures, or "sociopolitical arrangements." Helpful in their definition are the link between intention and action and the prominent place they give to the rejection of hegemonic ideas (on which, see further below). Both of these elements are key to Jewish resistance to Antiochus's persecution. Yet Van Walraven and Abbink conceive too narrowly the motivations for resistance. Curious is their omission of defending a way of life, which must encompass more than "sociopolitical arrangements," as well as the recognition that ideals take embodied form in religious, cultural, and social practices. I return to this question in the discussion of domination later in this chapter.

Contesting Hegemony and Domination

Barbalet's focus on limiting power and influencing outcomes helpfully illuminates structural and functional dimensions of resistance. Haynes and Prakash place a similar emphasis on the effects of resistance, but narrow the field slightly from considerations of power in general to focus on hegemony and domination. Unlike Van Walraven and Abbink, they do not view intention as a necessary component of resistance. They offer the following definition: "Resistance, we would argue, should be defined as those behaviours and cultural practices by subordinate groups that contest hegemonic social formations, that threaten to unravel the strategies of domination; 'consciousness' need not be essential to its constitution." In this definition, domination, its strategies, and the hegemony that reinforces it provide the conditions for and objects of resistance. The terms "hegemonic" and "domination" invoke the conceptual categories of Antonio Gramsci (hegemony) and Karl Marx, Weber, and Louis Althusser (domination). The references to "cultural practices" and "strategies of domination" also invoke the work of Pierre Bourdieu. I return to each of these concepts below. In the view of these theorists, domination is a feature of everyday life, such that within particular social settings it is the norm, rather than the exception. In such settings hegemony shapes the contours of perceived reality. For these reasons, Haynes and Prakash wish to move away from a view that sees resistance "as a response to a radical dislocation in the nature of the social order." Like Scott (and influenced by his work), they argue that resistance belongs equally to the realm of the everyday and commonplace, where no "unusual threat" is perceived to exist.

Finally, their use of the term "consciousness" in their definition is meant in the very limited sense of "conscious ideologies of opposition." For Haynes and Prakash the intention to resist is not a necessary prerequisite for resistance itself. As they explain, "seemingly innocuous behaviours can have unintended yet profound consequences for the objectives of the dominant or the shape of a social order." By this understanding, resistance is measured solely in terms of its limiting or transformative effects on relations, structures, and strategies of domination.

For the present study, what is helpful in this definition is its recognition of the social dimensions and context of resistance and its effects on structures and strategies of domination. I do not, however, follow Haynes and Prakash in rejecting the role of consciousness or intention. In the texts studied in this volume, consciousness—powerfully expressed in the Book of Dreams' imagery of "open eyes"—is always in view, and is absolutely necessary for right action. In Daniel and 1 Enoch resistance flows from particular claims for knowledge and understanding. In many sources for this period it flows also from a commitment of the will to serve God alone and to remain faithful to the demands of covenant. The very burden of the apocalypses is to demonstrate and persuade that this radical epistemology and commitment of the will is not only a necessary precondition for right action but must in fact result in radical resistance. While I do not deny that unintended actions can defeat strategies of domination and, even more, work powerful transformations in the very structures of domination, I do not identify unintended actions as "resistance," and they will not be a focus in the present study.


What can we conclude from this survey of definitions of resistance? Daniel Miller, Michael Rowlands, and Christopher Tilley emphasize the shifting nature of the very concept of resistance, cautioning against efforts to arrive at "absolute and unchanging definitions." Rather than suggesting a definition that will be universally valid, I lift up instead three major points that provide a conceptual framework for the understanding of resistance I adopt in the present study.

1. Domination, its strategies, and the hegemony that reinforces it provide the conditions for and objects of resistance.

2. Acts of resistance proceed from the intention to limit, oppose, reject, or transform hegemonic institutions (and cosmologies — see discussion of hegemony below) as well as systems, strategies, and acts of domination.

3. Resistance is effective action. It limits power and influences outcomes, where power is understood as an agent's ability to carry out his or her will.

Hegemony and Domination: The Conditions and Objects of Resistance

I have stated above that domination and hegemony provide the conditions and objects of resistance. Yet as with resistance itself, it is difficult to arrive at concise definitions of these concepts. Nonetheless, attention to these concepts will help us to articulate both the conditions and objects of resistance for the writers of the earliest apocalypses, as well as their strategies of resistance to each.


Excerpted from APOCALYPSE AGAINST EMPIRE by Anathea E. Portier-Young Copyright © 2011 by Anathea E. Portier-Young. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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