Alter-Imperial paradigm: Empire studies and the Book of Revelation
Wood, Shane Joseph
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The question “How does Revelation interact with the Roman Empire?” weaves its way through the past 125 years of scholarly research on the Apocalypse. Yet, flawed methodologies, false assumptions, and limited trajectories have led to poor conclusions that posture Revelation as nothing more than a vitriolic attack on the Roman Empire that intends to incite, reveal, and/or remind Christians of imperial evil. This thesis challenges this academic narrative of the Apocalypse through the development and implementation of the Alter-Imperial paradigm. Repositioning the theoretical background of the imperial inquiry around Empire Studies, the Alter-Imperial paradigm applies insights from Postcolonial criticism and “examinations of dominance” to engage the complexities of the relationship between the sovereign(s) and subject(s) of a society—a dynamic far more intricate than either rebellion or acquiescence. From this disposition, various forms of Roman propaganda (from Augustus to Domitian) are explored to surface the Sovereign Narrative saturating the public transcript and immersing the subjects in key messages of absolute dominance, divine favor, and imperial benevolence. The date of Revelation’s composition, then, is established to isolate the socio-historical analysis to the Flavian dynasty, paying particular attention to the viewpoint of the oppressed and the question of “persecution.” The Flavian dynasty’s essential development of an anti-Jewish environment (intensified in Domitian’s reign) offers not only a contentious context for Christian communities—still viewed as indistinguishable from Jewish communities by Roman elite—but also indelible images of imperial propaganda through which subject texts, like Revelation, can interact with the empire. From this vantage point, the Alter-Imperial paradigm offers fresh interpretative possibilities for familiar (and even forgotten) texts, such as Revelation 20:7-10. This enigmatic passage depicts the release of Satan from a 1,000 year imprisonment at a climactic moment in the Apocalypse, and yet, this text is widely neglected in Revelation scholarship. Parallels to Roman triumphal processions (a central element in Flavian propaganda), however, demonstrate that Revelation 20:7- 10 depicts Satan as the bound enemy leader marching in God’s triumphal procession. Nevertheless, the Alter-Imperial paradigm does not stagnate at intriguing textual parallels. Indeed, this interpretation of Revelation 20:7-10 postures the interpreter to poignantly address the question: “How does Revelation interact [not merely subvert] the empire?” Specifically, the use of Roman imagery in the subject text does not necessitate an “anti-imperial” intent, but may simply be the grammar with which the subject text constructs their Alter-Empire. In fact, the Alter-Imperial paradigm suggests that to reduce Revelation to an anti-Roman document intent on the empire’s destruction is to over-exaggerate Rome’s significance in the subject text and, then, to miss its true target—the construction of the Alter-Empire through the destruction of the true enemy, Satan.