Months after providing a bit of a review of Dan Oudshoorn’s first volume in his Paul and the Uprising of the Dead trilogy, I am finally back. While this volume is slimmer than the previous one, I found myself delayed by a move and trying to finish a manuscript. If you were awaiting this (um, sorry Dan!), then I offer my sincere apologies.
Oudshoorn’s previous volume provided several important contributions. They aren’t limited to the following, but these were what I found to be useful both for the critical scholar, and to someone relatively new to the subject: 1) Oudshoorn presents the reader with a fairly comprehensive survey of various positions on a) social stratification in early Christian congregations, and b) Paul and imperialism, b) nuanced discussions in eschatology; 2) while being fair with interlocutors he disagrees with, he also does a good job sussing out the evidence with, especially, matters dealing with stratification, dismantling some structural foundations of new consensus scholarship; and 3) Oudshoorn keenly uncovers ways of reading texts from below in a way that most middle class, comfortable scholars are not able to quite recognize, as they have not lived the conditions necessary to cultivate the forms of historical imagination needed; this, I think, is a particularly important point, and reminds me of a challenge that Larry Welborn put in a review of Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor, namely that scholars needs to “cultivate an awareness of the inconspicuous strategies that ensured survival and flourishing for oppressed classes.” These, of course, are not comprehensive goods found in the book, but they stand out in particular to me.
Oudshoorn’s second volume (Pauline Eschatology: The Apocalyptic Rupture of Eternal Imperialism) is slimmer, but no less readable and important. Like the previous volume, it expertly deals with historical material, taking care to recognise the socio-material realities of what constitutes historical situations and change.
The volume is divided into, really, two main chapters (ignoring the introduction and conclusion), the first being “Apocalyptic Eschatology and the Founding Narratives of Empire: History and Resistance,” and “The Ideo-Theology of Rome: Justifying Empire.” If one has a decent grasp on the field of recent works in NT studies (especially works on Paul), then the general flow of these chapters may be evident from the titles.
Oudshoorn early on makes quite clear the basic thesis, noting that as he came of age( academically) much focus tended to be on claims about the end of history, and this is a reminder that ‘imperialism is heavily invested in promoting a realized form of eschatology’ (p 2). And, further, perhaps we can see some clear parallels between current iterations of empire (neoliberal capitalism, for instance) and the imperial cults of the first century CE. The book isn’t primarily focused on creating these parallels directly, even if they serve a useful purpose (perhaps, like, Neil Elliott wonderful book Arrogance of Nations). He doesn’t, for instance, set out bait for historical critical scholars to cry ‘Anachronism!’ The parallels, however, provide a good overview of what is happening here. Oudshoorn wants to show that, much as ’empire’ today is invested in rather grand (even theological!) claims about itself, and that these claims are forceful and have material impacts, so it was in the ancient world.
Many Pauline scholars would readily agree. And, while this may cause one to wonder why Oudshoorn pays so much attention to it, I want to gesture back to my previous review. I made clear there that one thing to keep in mind is that these are individual volumes in a larger project. Oudshoorn spends time on this, then, precisely because it elaborates on earlier parts of the broader picture he is painting. Here, then, we get some of the fine details and nuances that make sense of the scene.
What is empire trying to do? It really boils down to delimiting the future, to attempting to ‘eliminate the future as a domain of radical new possibilities that disrupt, overturn, or destroy the status quo…’, even if never bringing this goal to completion (p. 5).
While history is often purported to be a neutral mission of fact-finding, it never escapes ideology, and our ways of organising the past tell stories about what we value and about who is in charge. This can be seen quite clearly in the ancient world, though as Oudshoorn rightly notes it is true of the modern, as invested as we are in our own forms of mythmaking (pp. 9-10).
Our ways of marking time are important. And, while we tend to believe that divisions of time are products of objectivity and scientific achievement, they have generally tended to have much more to do with honour and ideology than simply with interest in mere precision. Oudshoorn notes, for instance, that the Romans often ‘marked time with honorific eras, with saeculum (marking a generation according to its oldest living member), and with anniversaries of years’ (p. 13). In fact, ‘events marked a shift to a new moment in history’ such as the ‘founding and refounding of (a new, better, truer) Rome by people like Romulus, Augustus, and Nero. . .’ (ibid). This helped shape Roman conceptions of historical progress.
Calendrical reforms occur in Rome that underscore the importance of the emperor. As time goes on the ‘cultic center’ shifts from older ways of reckoning hisotrical progress and centres on figures associated with the imperial cult. Oudshoorn notes that this has the effect of making the emperor ‘increasingly important to Roman ways of marking time and defining one’s identity and world as Roman’ (14). It’s a universalising project, one that brings all people under one calendar, under one understanding of time, that centres on a distinct imperial class.
Oudshoorn takes great pains to make this broader case, pointing to the creation of this cyclical, universal calendar, as well as noting the theological, political, and ideological ends of such a project. Holidays coinciding with births, the naturalisation of cycles of time guaranteed to subjects of the empire, and the requirement that citizens celebrate and participate unveils how deeply ways of marking time determine the scope of history, and re-fashion subjects of the body politic.
This interest in celebrating and moulding history is also about remaking the future, or perhaps rendering the present time as a time that persists in it’s abundance and perfection, a type of realised eschatology. As Oudshoorn notes, much was made about Golden Ages of the past, and Roman reforms (including attempts to re-make the subject through dividing time) is concerned with acknowledging a new age that corresponds to previous primeval golden ages. He notes the importance of the Secular Games, quotes from Virgil, Horace, and Ovid’s descriptions of past ages of prosperity to which Rome was reaching toward (pp 21-26). But of course, a golden age is only as good as its propaganda, which is why it is almost as if successive emperors have to re-do them, re-jig things in order to make this eternal moment in time more real. And, it is hard to make these moments seem real to any but the higher classes when there, as Oudshoorn shows through Cicero, was massive transfers of wealth to centres of the Empire (p. 30). We are surely familiar with this today. Many want to pretend, for instance, that America is relishing in a Golden Era (exemplified, perhaps by Golden Toilets), despite systemic racism, a massive underclass, the disenfranchisement of labour, and the rise of white nationalist violence.
But, just as there are resistances today, the ancient world found ways to resist. Rebellions are a great example, of course, but so are other forms of resisting history. Oudshoorn (drawing from Anathea Portier-Young) notes that apocalypticisms were a sort of ‘”equally totalizing counterdiscourse” dealing with themes of universalism, moral and ontological dualisms, vindication, imminence, judgment, and inspiration’ (p. 35; Portier-Young, Against Empire, 35). They exist as a type of ‘liberation of historical time’, a rupture (p. 36).
Oudshoorn goes on to note in the rest of the chapter Paul’s place in this, how Paul’s language follows along in the tradition of apocalypticisms, pointing to important, foundational work by scholars like J-L Martyn, perhaps best known for his Galatians work. This apocalypticism, despite in some ways mirroring the ‘ideo-theology of Rome’, is different in a crucial sense. It doesn’t posit a ‘clean instantaneous break’, but instead its rupture persists as a sort of overlapping of old and new ages (p. 42). Oudshoorn makes clear what this doesn’t simply mean: 1) it is not simply some individual internal struggle regarding righteousness; 2) it isn’t something strictly spiritual; 3) it doesn’t call for some aloofness wherein one ‘can simply continue to do what they can to make the world a better place, all while remaining very aware that the world is passing away’ (p. 43). Instead, this apocalypticism is a sort of interpellation, a call of a new, ‘militant subject’ who is part of an ‘awakened collective’ (ibid.). This is, quite obviously, political talk. And, Oudshoorn points to how Pauline language that goes against the realised eschatology of Rome buttresses this fact.
Despite all of this, Oudshoorn ends this chapter with a reminder that empires work to assimilate opposition, and attempting to co-opt imperial themes (in an attempt to flip them transgressively) is dangerous, inviting one to fall back into the ‘status quo’ of imperial power (p. 48).
Oudshoorn’s final chapter is a more thorough overview of what he terms the ‘ideo-theology’ of Rome, or, ‘the combination of beliefs and practices that provided the moral, spiritual, political, and economic foundations for the widespread implementation of imperial power’ (p. 52); this is important. If the general idea is that Pauline apocalypticism is connected to, or partially an obverse of/reaction to realised Roman eschatology, then understanding this ideo-theology would be important to understanding Paul.
Oudshoorn points to four main foundations of Rome’s imperial theology: 1) household; 2) honour and shame; 3) patronage; 4) ‘traditional Roman religiosity’ (p. 53). Most of these should be broadly familiar to those, especially, interested in social-scientific readings of NT texts. Further, aspects of them were touched on in the previous volume. Oudshoorn, however, point to numerous contemporaneous primary texts that undergird these as part and parcel of the broader ‘imperial theology’ of Rome, as well as pointing back to the Augustan reforms that he has discussed previously. This is important, especially, for his portrayal of the ideal Roman family, and the overall structure of the household. Significant time is spent on slavery, with Oudshoorn underscoring how views on slaves ‘contributed to the ideo-theology required to maintain the empire,’ primarily through a ‘view of foreigners and the urban poor as subhuman, targets of violence, and as objects to be feared’, which ‘justified military campaigns abroad and oppression at home’ (p. 65).
Oudshoorn’s section on patronage (pp. 69-79) is , I think, particularly important because of patronage’s pervasiveness, it’s ‘asymmetrical’ nature, and the types of social and material dependencies central to it (p 70). And, his final of the four foundations is crucial because, as Oudshoorn notes, it acts socially in a way that parallels the way that forms of conservative Christianity intertwine society and politics and make proclamations about normativity (pp. 79-83).
In order to keep this review from becoming unmanageable, let me gesture to the next big steps that Oudshoorn takes in the book, before saying a few concluding thoughts.
After discussing these four pillars of Roman imperial theology, Oudshoorn spends considerable time on detailing the Roman imperial cult, looking at source material (pp. 84-92), backgrounds for the spread of the cult in the east including details of the cult during the broad period of the NT’s composition/descriptions (pp. 92-99), and some of the central ‘themes’ of the cult (pp. 100-34). The themes, as he reckons them, are: 1) predestination to universal rule; 2) the gospel of Roman peace, salvation, and liberty; 3) war, victory, and justice; 4) piety; 5) mercy; 6) the rule of law; 7) the cult of Roma; and, 8) reverence of the divine Caesars.
Evaluating the Text, with a Final, Captivating End
This volume is, like the initial one, well-researched and well-written. It advances the broader work in important ways. But, I do think it could be useful for other purposes as well. This volume could be easily augmented for classroom use. While Oudshoorn is doing some important and novel things overall, he also provides a wonderful introduction and overview of Roman imperial ideology, the imperial cult, and how these things effect how we read the NT.
Oudshoorn also provides some important charges, really, for the person doing work in this area. I think, over all, he attends to historical imagination in a novel way. And, this is perfectly displayed in his surprising, and rousing, conclusion. Here, I think, is Oudshoorn at his absolute best, with a play between historicising and extracting theories’ energising potentialities. In these final pages, Oudshoorn notes works that have attempted to supersede Foucauldian biopower, positing a type of necropower wherein large intersections of underclasses are subjected to forms of zombie-like life, with their value is accorded to the maximization of economy (pp. 135-36; Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”‘ pp. 40, 31-32, 34). And, attempts to break from these forms of life often results in subjects embracing ‘an incredibly brutal form of “necroempowerment,” wherein he. . . seeks to transform the situation of vulnerability “into possibilities for action and self-empowerment, and that reconfigure this situation through dystopian practices and perverse self-affirmation achieved through violent means”‘ (p. 136; Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, 301, 74). The ethics that arises from these dispositifs , rather than ‘do no harm’ is ‘”Receive no harm, or Participate in harm as agents and no longer (only) as victims“‘ (p. 136; Valencia, 114). This gives way, as Valencia and Mbembe make clear, to a type of thanatophilia (or, perhaps as Roberto Esposito would say, a form of thanatopolitical community).
Oudshoorn, after detailing our situation using Mbembe and Valencia, points out however that these predilections existed before capitalism, before our current global situation/s. In fact, ‘although they are embodied in a wide variety of permutations and overcoded with many different glosses, ideologies, or gods, these dynamics are representative of imperialism qua imperialism’ (p. 137). These are dynamics present in the ancient world as well, in the Pauline context. ‘Empires are necrotizing fasciitis. Wherever they go, pain, rot, and ultimately annihilation quickly follow (p. 138).
In Oudshoorn’s story, the Pauline faction attempts in its own way to depart from this. ‘Paul and his coworkers do not pursue’ he writes, ‘the forms of necroempowerment that tempt other members of subaltern populations within the Roman Empire’ (Ibid.). More on that will follow, of course, in Volume Three.