Theron Clay Mock Reviews Apocalypse as Holy War (Wasserman)

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.08.08

Emma Wasserman. Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul. AYBRL. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. 352. ISBN: 9780300204025. $65.00. Hardcover.

Theron Clay Mock III, he/him/his (
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich

To imitate Max Müller: the scholar who knows only Paul does not know him.[1] This failure to know him comes in at least two forms. First, the scholar studies Paul and only Paul. The intense focus on the apostle is an understandable reaction to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, as well as the continued legacy of Augustine and the Reformers. Second, the scholar pursues parallelomania. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars presumed to find many parallels between Paul and his environment, yet rather than achieve a balanced presentation they overplayed their hand. In reaction, scholars have either returned to the unique, incomparable Paul or they have situated him within his environment, but with a twist: The apostle no longer is conditioned, he conditions. In other words, scholars compare Paul with his Greco-Roman, pagan, or Jewish environment, but in their analysis a Pauline scheme dominates.To summarize, with playfulness, a fair amount of Pauline studies: Paul either performs a monologue or sets the stage.[2]

Can he be placed in a scene not his own?
Could he be participating in a shared ancient Mediterranean dialogue?
Must he remain unique and therefore incomparable?

Emma Wasserman, associate professor at Rutgers University, would respond yes, yes, and no, respectively. In Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul, her second monograph after the well-received The Death of the Soul in Romans 7, Wasserman moves from the most challenging passage in Paul to disputed apocalyptic themes.[3] The book succeeds in advancing arguments about Jewish apocalyptic and Pauline studies and illustrates exemplary scholarship, but it may require further justification on analytical and methodological matters.

Introduction: The Politics of Heaven

The introduction provides a quick literature review and a précis of the chapters. Towering scholars (Weiß, Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Käsemann) as well as contemporary ones (Martyn, Beker, and Gaventa) are Wasserman’s main disputants. All categorize apocalyptic as a dualism, either of the two-age or the two-kingdom variety. The former stresses a strict split between the eschatological future and present, whereas the latter emphasizes the conflict between evil rebellious powers—not personifications––that threaten Paul’s communities. Also, all imbue their historical judgments with normative theological relevance. She notes that the evidence does not bear out either the strict dualism or the theological application, and she forms her approach in response. Her program is concisely and clearly communicated thus: Wasserman reframes some Jewish apocalyptic texts as “myths about political relationships in the divine world” (2); the imagined cosmos is unified and contains a hierarchical arrangement of divine beings with the supreme god on top, and the lesser divine beings are subject to the high god’s rule. She endorses John J. Collins’s minimal definition of the apocalyptic genre but argues that comparisons among non-apocalyptic literature from ANE, Greco-Roman, and Jewish sources enable us to grasp patterns of similarity and difference with Paul. These texts are political mythmaking that share commitments to one supreme divine being. Their myths and divine beings are played out in culturally specific ways to solve specific problems. These bodies of writings structure the book, as Wasserman turns in ch. 1 to ANE and Greco-Roman texts (Enuma Elish, Baal Cycle, Epic of Anzu, the Hebrew Bible, Theogony, Work and Days, and the Iliad), in ch. 2 to Jewish sources (1 Enoch, Jubilees, Daniel, the War Scroll, the Community Rule), and in chs. 3–5 to the undisputed Pauline texts. 

1. Creation, Battle, and Cosmic Intrigue

The myths of Marduk, Baal, Ninurta, Yahweh, and Zeus share enough premises about anthropomorphic deities, cosmology, and political affairs to compare them with each other. All these gods are members of a hierarchical pantheon. Deities like Zeus and Marduk reign over and atop others, who stand lower down on the scale, as Baal is below El. All use martial means to regulate the cosmos, lesser divine beings, and the political situation. This may occur in the past, present, or near future. Most of the traditions tell tales involving equal opponents, e.g., Ninurta and Anzu in mortal combat, but in the distinctive case of Yahweh it is an asymmetrical affair. Yahweh’s mythmakers supress the power of other deities and the possibility of genuine conflict. Instead, the mythmakers recast these divinities as subservient to and instruments of the god of Israel. This asymmetry is assuredly ideological but also literary. Traditions with divine warfare play out over a larger narrative, whereas we have only snippets of scenes from the biblical anthology. It is useful to speculate whether a larger epic would involve matched combat between Yahweh and another deity.

2. Assemblies, Councils, and Ranks of Divinity

Jewish mythmakers behind 1 Enoch, Daniel 7–12, and Jubilees as well as those near the Dead Sea maintain a striking continuity with those of ch. 1 yet prove distinct in several respects. The belief in an almost too-powerful Yahweh provokes his victimized people to reflect on their plight. With him their victory is assured, so why do they suffer and how do they appeal to their god? The authors that produced 1 Enoch, Daniel 7–12, and Jubilees each have some access to revelation, which provides them with insight into the deity’s stable order. From this, they perceive that their plight is temporary. They know therefore that they are an empowered, privileged group awaiting their god’s perfect reign. Even if the victory of Yahweh is described as a “new creation” (1 En 72:1; Gal 6:15), it is not incommensurate with the old one. Whatever the rhetoric, the most significant religious point remains the same: Yahweh rules. The cosmic transformation, the full actualization of his sovereignty, was all a part of the plan, as far as the mythmaker is concerned. And for this reason, charges of a reified dualism in apocalyptic literature as such and Jubilees, 1QM, and 1QS in particular might be misplaced. It may only be rhetorical. Wasserman shows that most dualistic rhetoric is subsumed under the power of the supreme deity and is a strategy to distinguish the community from their antagonists and reinforce their god’s singular rule.

These first two chapters, covering some shared premises of ANE and Greco-Roman religious writers and some distinct Jewish motifs, prove remarkably illuminating in the next three chapters on Paul, who plays among other mythmakers on an inherited stage, perceptively reconstructed by Wasserman. She neither isolates nor idolizes him; consequently, gone is the unique Paul—a gain for the academic study of religion.

3. Conflict, Competition, and Paul’s “Principalities and Powers” Reconsidered

Paul’s distinct aspects shine through here, and rather than discuss all the passages Wasserman explores I focus on Philippians 2:6–11. Paul exalts Yahweh not primarily through foils but through Jesus the messiah. Considering the shared premises, Jesus’s godly form means he was a divine being: a humble one, relative to divine insubordinates and arrogant kings, never forcefully grasping after equality with his god. Though Paul passes over an explanation, it seems that Yahweh assigned Jesus with some task that he fulfilled through a downgraded form and an obedience to the point of his demise. Jesus’s obedience and noncompetition lead to an elevation in status, indicated nominally, with a promotion from lesser divine being to penultimate one (my term). It seems that the name-granting is Paul’s mythical mechanism to explain why all lesser divine beings confess his lordship. Yahweh signed off on this obeisance with his name, and, importantly, it does not end with Jesus: it redounds to the ultimate deity’s glory. Wasserman’s much needed historical contextualization unearthed inherited notions that throw into relief one of Paul’s most contested passages.

4. Idols and Other Gods in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans

This chapter focuses on foils to the god of Israel and his anointed one. Wasserman sees Paul reclassifying gentile gods, or lesser deities, in a way similar to the way Israelite and Jewish polemics do. First Corinthians 8–11 is her best example. In this passage, Paul grants, “An idol has no real existence, and there is no God except the one God. There are those called gods and lords in heaven and earth, so in that sense there are many gods and lords” (1 Cor 8:4–5, Wasserman’s translation); in the next verse he assures his readers that there is one God and one lord. Wassermann argues that he reclassifies gentile statues as ineffective, pays lip service to gentile gods’ genuine existence, and then projects onto Yahweh and his anointed alone true existence and thereby supreme power. It is intriguing that later Paul warns them that these sacrifices are to gentile gods, reclassified now as demons, and thereby provoke their deity’s anger (1 Cor 10:20–22). These demons are neither center-stage for Paul nor a concern for the Corinthians; rather, the apostle warns they should be worried about Yahweh who may punish them.  While not entirely clear, Paul is not contradictory either: gentile statues are ineffective but effective enough to arouse Yahweh’s jealousy. There are many gods, but Paul knows there is one stronger god, and therefore reclassifies them as demons. These foils highlight the effective agent that Paul imagined Yahweh to be. Similar reclassification strategies occur in Galatians and Romans with celestial deities.   

5. Victimization, Alienation, and Privilege among the Christ-Elect

Wasserman shows how an apocalyptic cosmology illuminates Paul’s ethical matters. Through the pneuma, Yahweh’s rule extends from the heights to the houses of gentiles struggling to imitate Jesus. The deity is all-powerful, yet Paul’s holy ones [or, saints] cannot seem to obey. Paul mediates divine revelation, but the holy ones seem ignorant of it. God and Jesus’s pneumas are in the holy ones, even though fleshly desires overpower them. Wasserman’s analysis supplies us with a way to understand such conundrums. Disobedience and ignorance play a role similar to that of the lesser divine beings—they serve as foils. In Paul’s hands, these problems point to the superior authority of Yahweh and his messiah. He draws upon Jewish, Stoic, and Platonic notions to address them. Jewishly, these gentile holy ones, uniquely among the non-Jewish peoples, have access to Yahweh’s plan. Platonically, their minds are freed by Christ from bodily, deadly passions. Stoically, their problems originate in immature rivalry but would disappear if they obeyed Paul, Christ, and Yahweh. Never leaving the persistent premises of Jewish religion, Paul appropriates language that rings with Platonic and Stoic overtones, even though, as academics point out, they are ethical philosophies at odds. Paul was no academic scholar, and, like everyone, held inconsistent beliefs. Depending on the problem, he responded with what he saw fit from his rich and diverse cultural repertoire.

Conclusion: Apocalypse as Holy War

The conclusion sums up the main lines of Wasserman’s argument. She points out the errors in apocalyptic Paul scholars (reified notions of good vs. evil kingdoms, rebellious evil powers, and conflating theological and historical practices) and historical studies in general. She repeats her contributions: 1) the inclusion of non-apocalyptic literature can reframe the cosmic warfare motif in Jewish apocalyptic sources, 2) the payoff of an epistemology of dynamic intellectual repertoires, 3) and the similarity of cross-cultural and basic premises about deities, the cosmos, and politics. Additionally, she hints at how her conclusions could illuminate letters like Colossians and Ephesians. Wasserman unveiled some fundamental common points among different ideologies and provided the academic community with an argument for the different ways mythmakers expressed those commonalities to describe their ultimate, martial deity.

This book is excellent, and I limit myself to three items relevant to the field: its relation to recent works on apocalyptic, the intellectual repertoire of apocalyptic writers, and the methodological issue behind comparing ancient ideologies.

Other scholars traffic in apocalyptic, so where does Wasserman fit? Two matters: first she offers a hard-hitting critique of apocalyptic Paul scholars with implications for current debates. Second, along with G. Anthony Keddie, and against Anathea E. Portier-Young, she persuasively defends the non-resistance position.[4] Apocalyptic literature primed communities’ imagination for the divine emperor’s impending violent end; it did not instigate social action; this was a shared premise in these apocalypticists’ mythical toolbelt and leads to the next positive contribution.

Wasserman makes good use of the epistemological notion that these ancient mythmakers work more with an intellectual repertoire (2–3, 12, 20, 160, 172) than a package deal (11, 207)––be it a “tradition,” “worldview,” or “conceptual framework,” and I would add “story.” Such package deals can become reified or speculatively reconstructed and then deployed to suit agendas rather than accurately describing and translating the text into scholarly categories. For example, there was never an essential Jewish position on time and eschatology. Various Jewish mythmakers considering the past, present, and future responded to their problems with similar premises about anthropomorphic divine beings, the cosmos, and politics in diverse ways. In the same way, Paul can speak Stoically and Platonically, without providing scholars with valid grounds for reifying him as a Stoic or a Platonist. Ascertaining these open-ended, dynamic, impersonal schemes frees scholars from any text, tradent, or tradition’s domination. This shifts scholarship away from tracing genetic tradition-histories and toward analogical comparisons, the final positive aspect.

Comparison has become a hot topic in New Testament studies, and Wasserman’s book contributes to this discussion. As she notes, comparison has been used to denigrate Jewish texts relative to Christian ones, a practice from which, thankfully, contemporary scholars have begun moving away. Yet some remain bothered by the prospect of losing the distinctiveness of the New Testament anthology. And here emerge strategies of protection and the rhetoric of uniqueness. Recently, C. Kavin Rowe has challenged academic comparisons outright.[5] Wasserman’s incisive study might silence such protestations and does reveal Christian apologetics obstructing the intended historical research. In her treatment, Paul’s distinct aspects, for instance, the non-rivalry of Jesus in comparison to ANE and Greco-Roman insubordinate divine beings, are not effaced but emphasized—yet Wasserman chose concepts that enabled cross-cultural and penetrating comparisons rather than unwieldy or apologetically-motivated ones. This is an impressive achievement; her study instantiates an academic study of religion come of age, à la Jonathan Z. Smith.[6] Wasserman attains the objectives of excellent comparative scholarship: identifying an unsettled and significant issue in the scholarly tradition as well as returning to the primary sources for a creative solution that will hopefully persuade readers.

However, one must ponder where Wasserman may have gone awry. Concerning the content, I would not quibble with her interpretations. They are all defensible, overall persuasive, and never worrisome. Instead, I provide an update on the dating of the Parables of Enoch, mention one relevant book, and briefly discuss the analytical category of monotheism.

Due to constraints on length, Wasserman did not include the Parables or Revelation, though they would fit perfectly. She acknowledges that there are dating issues around the Parables and refers readers to Michael Knibb’s 1979 article.[7] A recent treatment settles it as much as one historian can and enables useful speculations. According to Ted Erho, scholars have basically come to a consensus that the Parables were written anywhere between 50 BCE–100 CE. That is a gain in scholarly knowledge, superseding the minority though influential view dating it to 270 CE and the recent though-also-minority argument for 40 BCE. Within that range lies useful speculation; for example, Tony Keddie provides plausible conjectures for placing it between 20 BCE–4 BCE.[8]

James F. McGrath’s wonderful The Only True God is relevant to issues raised by Wasserman.[9] This is not a criticism of epistemic responsibility; it is sensible that she did not cite the book as it deals with debates in christology. Nevertheless, for the interested reader, it precedes and supplements her account of Philippians 2:6–11 with attention to cultic sacrifice. The crucial factor of sacrifice, often overlooked by scholars who model ancient religiosity on their own contemporary habitus, is a better indicator of how most Jews recognized their deity than obeisance or exegetical practices. May both of their books gain a wide audience, for McGrath makes a persuasive case that exclusive sacrifice is another, perhaps the strongest, factor in constructing Second Temple Jewish monotheism––the analytical matter of concern.

Whether or not scholars should retire or retain “monotheism” hangs on when and for what texts. “Monotheism” is fraught with difficulties that are good for the field as it ought to push scholars to make explicit their use of the term, for it is possible that substituting the term for another could preserve unhelpful aspects. Wasserman makes explicit her use and advances the conversation in Pauline studies. Paul was no monotheist. Yet her category of “lesser deity” for other texts may prove unhelpful. She is not wrong that all the texts she examined share a one-deity discourse, but she may not be right that they all conceptualize theism as lesser deities or that for Jewish literature it is a rhetorical flourish. The issue seems to pivot on this point: are we to imagine that these Jewish writers were actively recasting gentiles’ gods in ways similar to Israelite writers or inheriting, as a premise, that these other divine beings were not gods? Are they reclassifying or inheriting a taken-for-granted reclassification—a matter I considered when encountering Wasserman’s phrases like “well-established polemic” (154) and “traditional strategy” (160)? If well-established and traditional, is it likely that this polemic may have formed some authors’ understanding of divine beings so that there was only one deity among and above the lesser divine beings? Is it, like the cosmo-political divine hierarchy, a common premise among some Jewish writers?

The asymmetry between deities was at one time rhetorically rooted but in some cases it seems to have been reinterpreted and reified as a religious expression of a distinct theism: one deity over lesser divine beings, not lesser deities. While Wasserman’s academic reclassification is a classless divine society of lesser deities, forgoing traditional classes like angels and demons (6, 205, 208, 211n3), these figures do seem to be no longer classified as lower-level deities.[10] It seems to me that the reclassifying polemics that Wasserman helpfully brings in from earlier Israelite literature had already become starting points for some Jewish writers she surveys. “Lesser deities” makes sense for a lot of Israelite texts, but some Israelite and in some Jewish literature “lesser divine being” and “monotheism” seem preferable, for example Psalm 82. This perspective also helps set the stage for why Jesus’s deity became a new issue. To some literate religious experts it mattered what type of divine being Jesus was: deity or something else. Reclassifying would happen in the following centuries as some Christians argued with themselves and Jews over Jesus’s status while at the same time rabbis argued among themselves, with other Jews, and with Christians over the meaning of deity. And the reclassifying has not stopped: as a scholar of religion Wasserman makes the case for Jesus as an obedient, subordinate, and penultimate deity of Israel’s god. This point, alongside the many more highlighted above, will lead to necessary and hopefully fruitful conversations in the academic study of religion.

[1] Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion: Four Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution; With Two Essays, On False Analogies and The Philosophy of Mythology (London: Longmans, Green, 1873), 16.

[2] As an example of the first mistake, one may point to Douglas Campbell, who demonstrates a singular devotion to Paul. As illustrative of the second, one may suggest E. P. Sanders. His contributions changed the field for good, yet, as others have pointed out, he still operated with a Pauline scheme; see Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 24–26.

[3] Emma Wasserman, The Death of the Soul in Romans 7: Sin, Death, and the Law in Light of Hellenistic Moral Psychology, WUNT 256 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

[4] G. Anthony Keddie, Revelations of Ideology: Apocalyptic Class Politics in Early Roman Palestine, Journal for the Study of Judaism Supplement Series 189 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), esp. 35–41; 74–79; Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

[5] C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[6] See Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 53.

[7] Michael A. Knibb, “The Date of the Parables of Enoch: A Critical Review,” New Testament Studies 25 (1979): 232n21.

[8] Ted M. Erho, “Historical-Allusional Dating and the Similitudes of Enoch,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011): 493–511; Keddie, Revelations of Ideology, 139–49.

[9] James F. McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

[10] Mark S. Smith, “Monotheism and the Redefinition of Divinity in Ancient Israel,” Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions 9 (2014): 3–19, here 11, 15–16.

Theron Clay Mock III