Apocalypses generate mixed reactions in our culture. They sell briskly at the box office. They are cathartic. They are foundational to the gospel and to Christian hope.
But they also feel dangerous and unsettling. They seem to feed a politics of certainty, triumph, fear, and exclusion. Many of us suspect our biblical apocalypses are harmfully radioactive. If we handle them at all, we put on gloves, and find it impossible to turn the pages.
What's really there? What are these ancient apocalypses?
Apocalypse is, first of all, a genre, or way of writing, that aims to convey a way of seeing. The first apocalypses asked their readers to open their eyes and see the world in a new light. They were actively resisting other ways of seeing. They offered images, symbols, and stories to combat the story and spectacle of empire.
In the ancient world empire was a transnational apparatus for the redistribution of wealth from poor to rich, from rural to urban, from subjugated nations to the imperial seat. Conquest was its engine, leaving death, shame, and fear in its wake. Conquered peoples yielded up tribute, land, and labor.
Empires claimed the power to order the world. They ruled by force. They also ruled by the stories they told. They marked their power on people’s bodies. Structures of domination and subjugation were encoded in social interactions, gestures, and scripts. Through stories, myths, and symbols and through the habits and practices they shaped, empires could assert their rule as given, as the necessary and natural order knit into the fabric of time, space, and human life.
The writers of the first apocalypses exposed imperial myth as a negation of life. They exposed the monstrous character of imperial violence and exploitation. They revealed its contingency. And they offered an alternative. They revealed the seat of justice, future humane rule on earth, and the eternal, heavenly throne of God.
Daniel: From terror to hope. Daniel, the first full-length biblical apocalypse, was written in a time of state terror and persecution. A brief history of Hellenistic rule in Judea sheds light on the age of terror and trauma into which the book spoke.
Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 332 B.C.E., during his campaign for control of territories previously consolidated under the rule of the Persian Empire. After his death, his generals fought for control of the empire he had conquered, until one empire became four. Among them, the dynasties founded by the generals Ptolemy and Seleucus fought continually for control of the province of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, to which Judea belonged. Between the years 274 and 168 B.C.E., Ptolemies and Seleucids fought over this region in no fewer than six Syrian Wars.
After a century of Ptolemaic rule, in 200 B.C.E. Judeans became subjects of the Seleucid Empire. Submission brought modest privileges to elites in the capital city of Judea, and the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, confirmed Judeans' right to self-governance according to ancestral laws. But they reeled from the effects of wars, internal divisions, tribute, and occupation.
In 175 B.C.E. Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the Seleucid throne and sought to consolidate his power by reconquering Judea. His reprisals in Judea included large-scale massacre, slavery, home invasion, and plunder of the temple. Seleucid soldiers set fire to the capital city and leveled its houses. The program of terror culminated with an edict issued in 167 B.C.E. The edict revoked Judean civic freedom, banned ancestral religion, and mandated in its place new religious practices and civic rituals that reordered space, time, and human life. Refusal to comply earned death.
Many Judeans did comply with Antiochus' program of terror. In so doing they saved their lives and the lives of their families. Others resisted. They resisted by remaining faithful to the law of Moses, circumcising their children, reading the scrolls, and refusing to eat pork or sacrifice to other gods. Some fought. Others, including the writers of Daniel, resisted through nonviolent witness, preaching and teaching, praying, fasting, and dying.
The book of Daniel had multiple audiences in view. First, it aimed to persuade Jerusalem's leaders, particularly those affiliated with Jerusalem's temple, to stop collaborating with the empire. The temple mediated between heaven and earth. It also mediated between Judea and its imperial rulers. Priests and scribes who worked for the temple had long been accustomed to serving two masters, and for centuries this arrangement seemed to work. In the wake of Antiochus’ edict, Daniel insisted that collaboration was no longer a faithful option.
Daniel's visions also spoke about and to a group called "the wise teachers of the people." The wise teachers would give public witness. They would also fall by sword, flame, and captivity. According to the visions, these martyrs would participate in atoning for the people’s sins and would lead the many to wisdom and righteousness.
"The many" are the book's third audience. Daniel's message would give strength and hope to the many suffering people of Judea through the apocalyptic preaching and witness of the wise teachers.
To each of its audiences, Daniel gave new sight. The visions of Daniel spoke the unspeakable, making it possible to move through trauma and terror into hope. They insisted on the integrity of a reality that seemed broken and fragmented. Trauma stopped time. Daniel reconnected past, present, and future in a continuous narrative of God's providential care. The visions denied the ultimacy of the pain Antiochus inflicted and the power he claimed. In its place they asserted the totality of heavenly rule, divine creation, sacred knowledge, and life in covenant with God. Daniel gave back to Judeans language, symbol, and the courage to hope.
Empire then and now. What is empire today? It has been easy to equate one political entity with another. The easiest target in our sights today is the United States of America. U.S. military, economic, and political interests range across the globe, as closely knit together as were those of ancient empires. However, this may be too facile an equation.
Some have called attention to another kind of empire. Global transnational corporations are now the primary apparatus for wealth's redistribution. The target of resistance has not only moved, it has also changed shape.
There is no simple equation between ancient empires and modern ones. As is so often the case when we attempt to map parallels between ancient, modern, and postmodern contexts, the categories are not quite the same.
Does Daniel's witness then become irrelevant? Hardly. But to understand what kind of witness it demands of us, we have hard questions to answer. As we examine the global landscape and empire’s changing forms, we must also re-examine our own place within it. U.S. citizens cannot condemn U.S. policy and practice without also owning them. And as we turn our attention to transnational corporations, we must ask: What is their relationship to the peoples whose wealth they redistribute? What is their relationship to conquest and war? And what is their relationship to us?
Virtual reality. Daniel challenges us on two other fronts. Daniel’s apocalyptic revelation asserts the inseparable relationship between invisible and visible realities. That includes the relationship between heaven and earth: Battles fought in heaven mirror those fought on earth and determine their outcome. In a similar fashion, worship on earth mirrors that in heaven and participates in it.
Daniel asserts that appearances can deceive when they masquerade as the sum total of reality. Daniel's vision reveals that things are not only what they appear. If it looks like kings and empires govern the earth, that is partially true. But the invisible God governs all. If it looks like death brings an end to life, that is partially true. But a future life awaits God’s people after death.
The insistence that invisible and visible realities are bound up together has a further implication: The mind can never be separated from the body. Belief and action are conjoined, each following from the other, each shaping the other. The idea that they could be separated has always been a myth of empire that serves empire's interests. In that myth, someone can serve two masters, one in the inner life, the other in the outer life.
Daniel calls his audience to reject this myth.
We face a new challenge. New media and social technologies confound our senses, seeming to transcend the boundaries of time and space. We increasingly interact with faceless, voiceless human beings without smell and touch. Can we call that interaction human? In fact we represent ourselves, and our interlocutors do the same. We interact as avatars. The effects of these virtual realities are real, but we have only begun to perceive and name them and to narrate their relation to the other visible and invisible dimensions of human life.
Terror all around. There is more to reckon with. We live today in a world more deeply traumatized and terrorized than many of us dare to imagine. Rudolph Rummel estimates that worldwide in the 20th century governments killed 262,000,000 of their own people.
Apocalyptic literature emerged as a literature of resistance to violent rule, and apocalyptic hope took shape as a response to terror and trauma. Globally, in the face of terror and trauma, apocalyptic hope is thriving. What kind of resource are ancient apocalypses for global theology? Are they too dangerous, or too violent, as many have feared?
Daniel is but one apocalypse. But Daniel is one that rejects violence. Daniel critiques the violence of empires and summons its readers to an alternative, nonviolent transformational praxis.
Daniel's nonviolent witness. Daniel and his friends model resistance and faithful praxis for the book’s audience. Resistance would proceed first of all from confession, penitence, fasting, and humbling oneself before God. Liturgical prayer constitutes the book’s audience as a community sharing common commitments, language, and attitudes and a common history and future as God’s people.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego each surrendered their bodies to death rather than forsake the practices of their faith or worship another god. Their stories provide Daniel’s readers with models of fidelity rooted in trust and outspoken, nonviolent resistance to royal coercive power.
Reading, interpreting, and writing scripture also play a key role in Daniel’s program of nonviolent resistance. The servant poem of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 provided a model for nonviolent witness.
At the book's conclusion, Daniel himself recedes so that the reader can take up the work of resistance. The book offers hope, critique, vision, and strength. It commissions its readers to teach, pray, and make righteous, to study and to speak, to humble oneself and surrender to death, and to hold fast to the covenant, trusting in God’s salvation.
Anathea Portier-Young is assistant professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. Portions of this essay are abstracted from her book Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, January 2011).