Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Portier-Young, Anathea, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011). Pp. 492. Hardcover. US$50.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6598-4.

In Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, Anathea Portier-Young provides readers with an impeccably researched and carefully nuanced examination of the function of three Second Temple period apocalyptic texts (Daniel, the Apocalypse of Weeks [1 En. 91:11–17; 93:1–10], and the Book of Dreams [1 En. 83–90]). Portier-Young argues that these texts represent types of resistance literature that serve certain functions in the Jewish religious community under the imperial domination of the Seleucid empire. While a thoroughgoing interaction with this highly detailed study is far beyond the purview of a simple review, I will provide here a brief overview of the content of the book, as well as some critical interaction with just a few of the thought-provoking arguments that Portier-Young puts forward.

Portier-Young's study proceeds in three parts. In part one she provides an overview of modern studies of resistance against power (political, governmental, military, etc.), and draws on these studies in order to provide a framework for defining “resistance” and exploring how the three apocalyptic texts she has chosen can be defined as “resistance literature.” While Portier-Young is unwilling to attempt “a definition that will be universally valid,” she does provide “three major points that provide a conceptual framework for [her] understanding of resistance” (p. 11). These three points are:

  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…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 (p. 11).

In addition to these working categories for understanding resistance, Portier-Young also draws on the work of Gramsci in her exploration of two distinct categories of oppression against which one might resist.[1] These are “hegemony” and “domination.” Hegemony is defined as controlling practices that shape culture and identity, but do not necessarily involve direct, violent oppression (pp. 11–12). Domination is defined as direct political or physical and effective control (p. 23). These categories are not sharply opposed, but represent two interrelated forms of oppression.

Portier-Young's discussion of hegemony is helpful, and provides the groundwork for one of her conclusions regarding the function of apocalyptic theology. In her exploration of hegemony she notes that this type of oppression involves the creation of a foundational discourse so internalized that it stands beyond dispute (what Bourdieu calls doxa; p. 12).[2] This also involves the creation of binary oppositions such as “inside/outside, center/periphery, good/bad” (p. 14). It is this combination of doxa and binary opposition that Portier-Young exploits in her exploration of the function of apocalyptic discourse. As discourse that presents an alternative reality, apocalypses serve to undermine the imposed discourse of the imperial power. Indeed, according to Portier-Young apocalypses do not merely undermine these discourses of power, but seek to invert them (p. 14). Modern readers must therefore be mindful of the fact that apocalyptic literature, in its assault on imperial hegemony, does not represent an argument against power per se, but against the specific power of its object of critique.

Part two of Portier-Young's work is an exquisitely detailed and carefully argued exploration of the history of Seleucid domination in Judea. Here we find the first example of what I feel is one of the laudable features of the book: Portier-Young's carefully nuanced argumentation and conclusions. In her discussion of the question of Judaizing and Hellenizing groups in Coele-Syria, Portier-Young suggests that a simple dichotomy is unhelpful:

Those who resisted the “Hellenizers” and later the persecution could reject the level of intentional Hellenization advocated by Jason and the other “Reformers.” They could reject Greek symbols and tools of domination, and they could reject the empire itself. Yet they would inevitably retain in varying degrees aspects of the hybrid identity and hybrid culture that resulted from their ongoing interaction with Hellenistic culture. (p. 114)

Consequently, one cannot reduce Judaism to a set of definable groups who were at odds with one another. The picture is more complex: “If we refrain from reconstructing a landscape filled with opposed groups, exclusive communities, or rival camps, we nonetheless find evidence in the early Enochic literature for the creativity and diversity within Judaism at this period” (p. 309).

Portier-Young's work also leads to interesting and helpful conclusions that are a welcome addition to historical work on the Seleucid period. For instance, she argues (quite plausibly) that Antiochus IV's campaign against the Jews was not a product of madness or stupidity, but was an attempt to “re-create” empire through “re-conquest and even state terror” (pp. 136, 178). That is to say, there was a logic (however twisted) to Antiochus IV's forced hellenization of Coele-Syria. It is this logic (conquest = creation) that the apocalyptic writers refute and challenge.

Another example of Portier-Young's careful nuance is her discussion of Seleucid state terror. Here she explores not only actions like murder and abduction but also examines the way in which something like murder in a home is an act of terror both in that it is murder, and also in that it creates an extreme violation of ritual purity laws by making a place of security into a place of death. “By violating these boundaries Antiochus worked to dismantle the existing symbolic, social, and psychological foundations—and by extension the religious foundations, from which none of these can be separated—of security, identity, order, and meaning for the people of Jerusalem…” (p. 146).

Portier-Young does not address the question of the implied readership(s) of her selected apocalyptic texts at significant length. She does note the relative illiteracy of second-century Coele-Syria, and that literacy is a feature of political and religious power, grounding her conclusions in Schniedewind's work (pp. 76–77).[3] This implies, of course, an elite readership as well. This is not a flaw in Portier-Young's work, but does suggest further avenues for study that might build on her exploration of these texts.

Part three of Apocalypse Against Empire includes an examination of Daniel, the Apocalypse of Weeks, and the Book of Dreams. Portier-Young's examinations and interpretations of these texts are precise and illuminating. Her exploration of the function of pseudonymy in 1 Enoch suggests that this feature is not about hiding true authorship, but is about claiming the authority of the ancient sage (p. 310, cf. much of ch. 8). She also concludes that these texts provide related but differing conclusions regarding effective resistance against empire. The book of Daniel, Portier-Young argues, focuses especially on non-violent resistance (p. 242). In contrast, the Book of Dreams emphasizes violent resistance, directed especially toward “idolaters” (p. 371).

Portier-Young concludes her work with a brief epilogue outlining potential avenues for future research. Of these the one that I found (and find) most fascinating is the question of the possibilities and pitfalls of a postmodern apocalyptic theology (or a postmodern theology that engages the apocalypses). As Portier-Young notes, the apocalypses offer our world both their powerful critique of the terror of empire, but also challenge us with their own form of totalizing discourse. I hope that some readers at least will take up her challenge to continue to explore these fascinating questions.

I strongly recommend Apocalypse Against Empire. This volume will be of particular interest to specialists in Second Temple literature and in apocalyptic literature. Indeed, I suggest that Portier-Young's work represents an important contribution to these fields that cannot reasonably be overlooked in future research.

Colin Toffelmire, Ambrose University

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith; London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). reference

[2] Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (trans. Richard Nice; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). reference

[3] William Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). reference