The Alter-Imperial Paradigm

Empire Studies and the Book of Revelation

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Shane J. Wood
Biblical Interpretation
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill
    , October
     2015.
     300 pages.
     $149.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9789004308022.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There are three intriguing, if not also potentially controversial, levels of argument in The Alter-Imperial Paradigm which I might categorize as the methodological/disciplinary, the socio-historical/exegetical, and material/theological. The book’s title signals engagement predominantly at the first, formal level. Shane J. Wood here suggests that whereas much of the scholarship on Revelation approached from the perspective of empire studies presumes that this last book of the biblical canon is anti-Roman and hence anti-imperial in its commitments, what we need is a more nuanced lens that is able to observe not just that these scriptural texts engage the Roman government and ideology but how such engagement occurs and what that tells us about the original readers or audience of such texts and how they understood their own political situatedness. 

Adapting and extending James Scott’s “hidden transcripts” model, Wood here seeks to unfold not just the Roman ideology as publicly displayed (e.g., on regal billboards or through coins, altars, and statutes) or performed (e.g., in rituals, ceremonies, or triumphal processions), but also the subject (those who are dominated) narrative’s interfaces with these propagandic instruments and events, in particular how these reveal subject traditions resisting or acquiescing—or both or neither—with these public implementations of imperial sovereignty. Our author is thereby after what he calls an “alter-imperial paradigm,” one that is neither merely anti-imperial nor assimilated to the imperial status quo (the two ends of the spectrum) but more attentive to the variety of subject positionalities and their modes of relating with the dominant narrative. My guess would be that most biblical scholars advocating some deployment of empire studies would resist Wood’s characterization of the field even while countering that what is here denoted in alter-imperialterms includes their own efforts (rather than being paradigmatically innovative). 

At the historical-exegetical level, Woods defends an end-of-1st century date for Revelation since the text’s interfaces with the dominant public transcript are suggestive of the later period of the Flavian dynasty (69-96 CE). More precisely, analysis of the Flavian triumphal processions that publicly solidified the message of Roman rule over the kings of the earth for the peace and benefit of the world’s subjects as manifestation of divine favor by including the captive chief enemy leader in the procession as a form of final and public humiliation, leads to the following reading of the release of Satan at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:7-10): this is a culmination of the triumph of Jesus Christ begun a bit earlier in these closing chapters of the book (Rev. 19:11-21) that reenacts the conclusive defeat of Satan before a watching world. If such an interpretation prompts further questions about the fit between what the text says regarding nations of the earth gathering themselves for battle (Rev. 20:8-9) and their role as spectators in the Roman processions, Wood’s rejoinder could be that the heretofore neglected points of contact between this passage and the imperial ceremonies begs for development and, in any case, none of the other interpretations—whether intertextual, historical, sociological, or theological—of the final satanic release convincingly leave no unanswered questions. 

This leads, then, to the material and theological argument of the book: that ultimately, the Roman empire is but the latest in a long line of imperial regimes deceived by the divine arch-enemy, the dragon and the accuser or Satan of old, and it is this foe that is the definitive target of the divine judgment and from whom the world and followers of Jesus as Messiah are to be saved. The central thrust of this line of argumentation is, of course, not novel, although the nature of the path woven through Revelation 20:7-10 might be, and thus the book’s appearance in Brill’s prestigious Biblical Interpretation series might also surprise some Neutestamentlars. If those in Wood’s circle of influence—he teaches at the small Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, which is affiliated with the restorationist Churches of Christ movement—might take his theological conclusion at face value, they would also along the way be introduced to another very different way of reading and engaging scripture as a group at some distance from the ecclesial center, albeit perhaps not in quite the same position as the imperially marginalized original readers of Revelation, or as subalterns of and from the majority world who today are engaging the dominant transcripts of a neoliberal (Euro-American) world order. This fecundity of interpretations, constituted by contestations, are indicative of The Alter-Imperial Paradigm’s capacity to engage a broad range of readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shane J. Wood is Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of the B.Th. New Testament Program at Ozark Christian College (USA). He has published various works on Revelation, which includes editing Dragons, John, and Every Grain of Sand: Essays on the Book of Revelation (College, 2011).

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