Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Horsley, Richard A. (ed.), In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008). Pp. vii+199, Paperback, US$24.95. ISBN 9780664232320

In the Shadow of Empire, edited by Richard A. Horsley, aims to communicate to readers outside the guild of Biblical scholarship the tradition of political exegesis developed by practitioners of the “empire-critical” method. As such, the contributors to the volume read as a veritable who's-who of empire-criticism: Norman K. Gottwald, Walter Brueggemann, Jon L. Berquist, John Dominic Crossan, Richard A. Horsley, Neil Elliott, Warren Carter, Brigitte Kahl, and Greg Carey. Each scholar's contribution reads as a 15–20 page synopsis of their overall view of the particular area of Biblical literature. As a volume aimed at a more popular audience, the contributions are light on footnotes, which might disappoint some scholars. Nonetheless, it serves as a helpful introduction to current perspectives on the relationship between empire and the Biblical tradition.

The volume begins with an introduction, “The Bible and Empires,” written by Horsley. Here Horsley clearly lays out the project in which he and his fellow contributors are engaged within this volume. Following the introduction are nine chapters, organized in roughly chronological order, from the origins of Israel through to the Book of Revelation. The first three chapters are likely of most interest to readers of JHS, as they deal with the Hebrew scriptures. In the first, Norman Gottwald discusses “Early Israel as an Anti-Imperial Community.” In this chapter he presents a succinct overview of his thesis, which he has expounded and elaborated since his Tribes of Yahweh, that “[e]arly Israel was born as an anti-imperial resistance movement that broke away from Egyptian and Canaanite domination to become a self-governing community of free peasants” (p. 9). He offers brief but interesting, almost homiletical, reflections upon the “Implications for the American Empire” which emerge from his thesis. Here Gottwald makes explicit a theme omnipresent but often only implicit throughout the balance of the volume: that contemporary believers should respond to contemporary empire as did ancient believers.

After Gottwald's contribution comes Walter Brueggemann's, which bears the intentionally ambiguous title “Faith in the Empire.” Is such faith in the empire commitment to the empire, or faith amid (or despite, and perhaps in resistance to) empire? Brueggemann recapitulates much of what he has elsewhere said about the relationship between kings and prophets in the pre-exilic period, emphasizing the ways in which both are situated within broader imperial contexts. Like Gottwald, Brueggemann explicitly relates these ancient struggles between commitment to the empire and resistance to the empire to the current, specifically American, situation.

Jon Berquist's contribution on “Resistance and Accommodation in the Persian Empire” is a logical successor to Brueggemann's. As in earlier works, most notably Judaism in Persia's Shadow, Berquist seeks to situate the history of Persian Yehud within its imperial context. As in Judaism he emphasizes here a causal relationship between Persian imperial policies and the re-building of the temple and the promulgation of Torah. He argues that whilst temple and Torah were to a certain extent accommodation to Persian policies, they also created space for Yehudite resistance to imperial rule. He argues that this space facilitated an anti-imperial tradition which continues to resound into the contemporary world.

The subsequent six chapters address similar themes, but now in the context of the New Testament. Given that this is the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, I will go through these more briefly. John Dominic Crossan begins in chapter four with a discussion of Roman imperial theology. The subsequent chapters largely presuppose the understanding of Roman imperial ideology represented by Crossan. In chapter five Richard Horsley situates Jesus within his Roman imperial context, summarizing themes which he has developed since early works such as Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Neil Elliot then discusses one of the areas most frequently addressed by contemporary empire-critical scholarship, the life and work of Paul. Warren Carter follows with a discussion of how Matthew negotiates the Roman Empire. In the last two chapters, relative newcomers to the discussion, Brigitte Kahl and Greg Carey, consider the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation respectively.

Richard Horsley ends the volume with a conclusion which harkens back to themes established in the introduction and recurrent throughout the volume. The most central theme is evident already in the book's sub-title: “Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance.” What emerges throughout the volume is a series of constructive political exegeses which aim at redefining the (Protestant, rather than Jewish, Catholic or Orthodox) Bible in American consciousness not as a book which deals primarily or even exclusively with issues of singularly spiritual and religious import but rather as a thorough-going political text.

Given the political exegetical first principle that every exegesis implies a politics, the volume's political Tendenzen seems critical fair game. Said Tendenzen could be succinctly described as anti-imperial and Amerocentric. On the first of these Tendenzen, there are indeed Biblical texts wherein resistance to empire seems evident. There are also texts wherein not only accommodation but even enthusiastic participation within empire are just as evident. Horsley and the other contributors are certainly not unaware of this multivocality within the Biblical tradition, but nonetheless there does seem a tendency to emphasize those texts which are more immediately susceptible to anti-imperial readings and to minimize the accommodation evident in other texts. This creates something of a canon within the canon, which suggests that the volume's sub-title might better read “Reclaiming [Part of] the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance.”

On the second Tendenzen, in the very first sentence of Horsley's introduction, he informs us that “Americans have a special relationship with the Bible” (p. 1). This is a volume about American empire, published by an American press, written by American scholars, and aimed at an American audience. Given the volume's title, many readers, myself included, might like to hear from scholars who live more in empire's shadow than in its bright, shining, centre. That said, many readers, myself included, are ambivalent at best about the use of economic and military might worldwide, not just by America but also its allies. We also wonder how, if at all, the Biblical tradition might speak to this use of might. Biblical scholars have been inquiring into the relationship between empire and Bible for quite some time now, and it is refreshing to see a volume which presents to a popular audience some of what has been said.

Jonathan Bernier, McMaster University