Apocalypse as Holy War

Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul

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Emma Wasserman
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , August
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ancient apocalyptic texts engage in political mythmaking of various sorts. These narratives usually present the cosmos as a complex political order where gods govern as absolute rulers. Rarely do readers find a monograph that presents a wide range of texts in antiquity on mythmaking that are set in conversation with Paul’s articulation of the Christ myth as Emma Wasserman’s Apocalypse as Holy War does.

After a very useful introduction, which articulates these aims and the overview of the arguments of the study, Wasserman moves on to show why it is important to situate her research topic within larger contexts and complex repertoire where the ancient gods and Yahweh act as divine warriors on behalf of their respective people.

Chapter 1 (“Creation, Battle, and Cosmic Intrigue”) analyzes briefly the Babylonian creation myth known as the Enuma Elish narrative, the Babylonian text known as the Epic of Anzu, the myths contained in the Baal Cycle collection, and the battle of the Gods in Hesiod and Homer. The theme of the divine warriors in the biblical literature are also examined in order to demonstrate these variegated texts operate within a normalizing understanding of the gods acting as military and political patrons. One important observation Wasserman makes, especially with regard to the biblical texts, is that “they show a marked tendency to suppress the idea that Israel’s God has enemies and opponents in the divine realm” (57).

Chapter 2 (“Assemblies, Councils, and Ranks of Divinity”) focuses on specific texts such as 1 Enoch, Daniel 7–12, the War Scroll, and the Treatise on the Two Spirits (1QS). The goal is to challenge a widely held consensus by many scholars of Christianity that “apocalypticists envision a world that is ruled by tyrannical divine rebels and evil gods” (106). Rather, Wasserman argues, “In place of rebel empires, these traditions more consistently imagine a unified cosmic empire where a supreme deity rules as king” (106).

Chapter 3 (“Conflict, Competition, and Paul’s ‘Principalities and Powers’ Reconsidered”) further sheds lights on her previous insight that in spite of the diversity in the narratives, they implicitly conceive of the world as “a kind of anthropomorphic political reality” (108).  In that presentation, the gods of a particular group are shown to be victorious over their divine opponents, whose presence and power are not acknowledged and of which knowledge concerning them are suppressed. Wasserman exemplifies this by focusing on Paul’s presentation of Christ as a divine warrior in 1 Cor 15:23–28. There Wasserman shows that Paul uses strategies readily available in his intellectual collection to make his presentation of Christ. For her, “Like other mythmakers, Paul evokes an image of battle but passes over this point rather quickly, as if in a hurry to affirm the stability of the cosmo-political order and to suppress the possibility of rebellion and conflict in the world of divinity” (125).

Chapter 4 (“Idols and Other Gods in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans”) continues to explore how Paul deploys the readily available discourses that vilify the gods of the other nations, while not giving any clear description or ontological status of these beings. All that Paul is interested in is that Israel’s deity is supreme and the gods are imagined as subordinates or subservient to the Jewish God. There remains a vagueness about the gods of the nations, and for Wasserman, “This vagueness and inconsistency are not incidental but rather are key polemical strategies” (159). This discursive strategy is one also present in the works of Philo and Pseudo-Solomon which provide, according Wasserman, an analytical framework for what Paul is doing.    

Chapter 5 (“Victimization, Alienation, and Privilege Among the Christ-Elect”) is much more difficult to situate within the larger argument of the monograph. The chapter’s aim is to show “how Paul’s letters adapt certain Greek traditions to imagine inner selves and communities as potentially unstable sites of threat, conflict, victory” (173). The chapter is well written, and the research is superb. However, this reviewer does not see how it advances or contributes to the overall argument of the volume. It reads as a stand-alone contribution.

This is my major criticism of the book. Although it accomplishes a lot, it tries to do too much. The conclusion presents a good summary of the book, but it could be stronger. Why the coy apology “Though I do not claim some objective point of view, I have tried to reframe the discussion of apocalypticism in ways that are consistent with the norms of historical inquiry in the humanities and social sciences of the secular academy, while also keeping in view certain parochial approaches that have tended to dominate the field”? (204). It should be evident to any reader that the work is a scholarly project engaged in the expected and rigorous norms of such an endeavor. Only in this subfield of the humanities is such a statement seemingly important for the author to make.

In spite of the few criticisms raised, the monograph is a model of great scholarship and is an important contribution in helping us to understand apocalyptic thought and the deployment of ancient mythmakings better. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Charles is associate professor of Religious studies at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emma Wasserman is associate professor of religion at Rutgers University and the author of Death of the Soul in Romans 7. She specializes in early Christian history and maintains a particular focus on the letters of Paul and on ancient ethics and cosmology.


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