Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul

Book Review

Emma Wasserman, Yale University Press, 2018. 352 pp.

Review by Scot Miller.

This present era of binary perspectives and hyperbolic representations of conflict or truth finds a convenient source in biblical literary genres. The appropriation of apocalyptic imagery and dualist notions regarding struggles between good and evil, clean and unclean, and those chosen contrasted with those on the margins is key to political polemics across the Western world. Emma Wasserman’s book Apocalypse as Holy War is a much-needed resource for teaching and preaching because of the nature of our political realities in the United States, where Christian civic religion has been a primary vehicle for delivering electoral votes.

Most recently, the majority of Christians who subscribe to end-of-the-world apocalyptic views have been fighting what they believe is a cosmic war in order to aid the God of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in meeting the assumed divine cosmic goals toward an imaginary theocratic Kingdom of the future. The subtitle of Wasserman’s book, “Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul” is a hint of what much of the content of her book works through. However, her conclusions regarding the themes revealed in apocalyptic literature, and modern concepts of cosmic Holy War and the impact of such star wars on the realm of human agency and suffering will provide frustrated non-binary thinkers with some new fuel for the fires raging over the use of religious beliefs in public policy making. Indeed, there is a well-ordered and stable cosmic body politic. As for cosmic warfare between good and evil, Wasserman indicates that Paul’s apocalyptic thought understands the cosmic order as having long been settled for good. It is the lower functions of this ordered hierarchy that pose the threat to God’s elect during their lifespan.

Before discussing Apocalypse as Holy War, I’d like to give a nod to Stanley Stowers, who is thanked by Wasserman for reflecting on her work and being a resource for it as well. There is evidence of Stowers’s thinking and contributions throughout her book related to Pauline theological and philosophical concerns. That Wassermann is so adept at identifying, comparing, and contrasting Pauline thought with Greek philosophical and socio-cultural categories is a gift for the reader, and a gift to improved understandings of how Paul’s thought brings so much more to his mission than simple messianic proof-texting of Hebrew scrolls and traditions to shoehorn into a supposedly pure monotheistic tradition.

I’ve not met Stowers, but have benefited very much from his legacy. I enjoyed exegetical courses on Pauline texts and James under the guidance of Timothy Seid of Earlham School of Religion. Seid had studied under Stowers as a PhD student. Seid not only referred to him often during classes, but provided students with the similar understandings of just how prevalent Greek concepts and philosophical thought were in Paul’s thought, and important to his ability as a missionary and theologian to be “all things to all people.” We need not concern ourselves to paint Paul in entirely Greek terms (despite the obvious fact that the times were Greco-Roman in every aspect) to benefit from being able to see how closely Paul kept his messianic beliefs and his Judaism intertwined with a common cultural structure that allowed for the communication of the gospel and eschatology of earliest Jewish-messianic heroes and cosmic struggles to travel across the Roman empire.

Wasserman speaks to several initial issues in her introduction, an act of deconstructing layers of scholarship that have insisted upon maintaining specific boundaries around apocalyptic literature in order to maintain some unique theology that needs to fit such thought into a framework to incorporate apocalyptic into lockstep with the aims of the work. She finds many of these attempts to view the literary device in uncritical terms that rely on a cosmic and earthly duality that is always at odds. (4) There is no such duel being described, not even as metaphor, she writes, but rather identifies that for “many critics… Christian apocalypticism most centrally concerns Christ’s triumph over rebellious powers of evil.” She indicates later that such beliefs are not really related at all to the cosmology of Paul or messianic Jews. Apocalyptic authors or editors knew that the divine order was established and stable. The early writers of the genre had other things in mind.

Western scholarship has been slow or loathe to catch on. Wasserman writes that Bultmann’s demythologizing project served to promote Paul’s apocalyptic thought as a means of speaking to “a profound and enduringly relevant existentialist view of the human condition.” (6) Käsemann “passionately embraced apocalyptic theology,” she writes, “but argued that a dualism for the ages is also foundational for Jewish apocalypticism… He emphasized a [cosmic or heavenly] struggle with evil powers by adding sin and death as evil ‘cosmic powers’ alongside Satan.” Wasserman writes that the two giants of western theological thinking are among many who misappropriate apocalyptic to serve an anachronistic concept of human struggle in ancient contexts. “Rather than two ages or realms,” she writes, “the texts more consistently imagine a singe cosmic order, albeit one that involves anxious interactions and ongoing threats in the present and that requires restoration, perfection, and renewal in the future. (7)

Her arguments are valuable to any scholarly discussion or responsible theological or rhetorical use of apocalyptic. First, Jewish literature of any genre is unlikely to speak in any terms about potential threats to the divine rule of YHWH. If there is cosmic warfare, “the battles of the Jewish high God tend to be portrayed as highly asymmetrical affairs… In contrast to Mesopotamian and Babylonian myths about heroic battles with the sea or sea dragon, for instance, the biblical texts tend to appropriate these motifs as minor skirmishes rather than as great battles.” (13)

Because the heavenly realm is ordered and secured by an undeniable divine ruler, lesser gods and gentile deities “have an ambiguous status as both operatives of the supreme deity and mistaken objects of worship. Such lesser operatives range from handmade icons that represent cosmic forces or are concerned to control otherwise naturally occurring but unpredictable events to the monarchs and kings of earthly empires that are directed by the divine hand to raise up and punish the fortunes of the elect – those of the natural realm who are chosen to carry out specific tasks within the cosmic order.”

The final chapters of Wasserman’s book detail how Paul writes and makes use of apocalyptic thought and imagery, not to convince audiences that YHWH will win the cosmic struggle against evil through the death of Jesus (which would be an odd turn of history in itself considering the nature of the cross in the Roman world). Rather, she writes that “Paul’s letters are centrally occupied with the ongoing and just rule of the supreme powers in heaven… and that Paul’s end-time scenario envisions the purification and perfection of the existing social and political order rather than its complete reversal or revolutionary overturning.” (15) Though some readers who cut their teeth on the work of Horsley and Carter among others might be put off by the idea that Paul’s discourse regarding empire is not “revolutionary,” an argument is made in good stead that Paul’s trust was that through the work of Jesus of Nazareth, individuals who “clothed themselves in Christ” were in fact subverting fallen or idolatrous aspects of the cosmic political order, both by living out the embodiment of heavenly expectations of earthly government moral vision and ethics, and by suffering on behalf of the messianic promise of redemption of the political realm by receiving the brunt of worldly violence against the rule of YHWH. As Wasserman writes, “Christ followers are rather consistently portrayed by Paul as members of a righteously alienated victimized elect.” (187). Later, she writes that apocalyptic thought that was familiar to Paul and his Jewish audiences and “these tales of cosmic woe and restoration set up for the construction of a victimized, alienated people that are already (or soon to be) transformed into a righteous super elite… having access to the providential plan for world history and, above all, having unique ties to the upper ranks of divine power. (197)

The overview of Pauline apocalyptic is compelling, and the book is made all the more valuable by the additional scholarship of Wasserman that provides both context and solid historical understanding of the ancient near east and burgeoning Roman empire that will serve anyone constructing an interpretation of the biblical text that is informed by historical and literary criticism. Her ability to tie in the various creation or originating violence myths together with Israelite myths shows just how much Israelite religion had in common or was indebted to its neighbors. She also engages in a discussion of “principalities and powers” and the premise that while they were always thought to be answerable to cosmic rule, these worldly agents tended to rebel against one another and pull much of created order into their fray. Often, as mentioned above, this rebellion occurred at the direction of divine rule to punish or raise up rulers of the earthly realm.

A most informative part of the book, as indicated above, is Wasserman’s ability to present Paul’s apocalyptic thought into a context that recognizes the necessity of not only acknowledging his intellectual capacity for engaging in Greek philosophical discourse, but with other Jewish thinkers who wrote entirely for Greco-Roman and philosophical audiences. Wasserman goes further to point out just how much the Jesus narrative and messianic claims of Paul concerning Jesus of Nazareth are couched in terms that flow easily between the banks of previously flawed scholarly concepts of purely categorized terms and patterns of observations, perspective, and expression. Wasserman shows in a manner easily understood how there was no purely Hebraic, Greek, religious or even ethnic or “racial” category to write within, let alone to be understood as such.

Wasserman does a fantastic job of presenting new ways of understanding apocalyptic thought, centuries of context that call into question the purity of ideally monotheistic Israelite religious concepts, and even Paul’s own concern for a perfect monotheism. It is a welcome addition to my own quest to make sense of Paul. I look forward to reading Wasserman’s writing as it might relate to the manner in which Paul and Jesus can be compared and contrasted with Greek Philosophical categories, and how she interprets Paul in his relatedness to the words and ethics attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.

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