Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament
Within the guild of New Testament studies has arisen a new motif within ideological and literary criticism of the biblical text—Postcolonialism. One of the more prolific scholars in this field is Stephen D. Moore, professor of New Testament and chair of the graduate division of religion at Drew University. In this work he eloquently articulates the rise of postcolonial thought from its advent in literary studies, to its utilization in current biblical studies. Postcolonial criticism is “not a method of interpretation . . . so much as a critical sensibility acutely attuned to a specific range of interrelated historical and textual phenomena” (p. 7). Moore asserts at the outset that before World War II 84.6 percent of the land surface of the globe consisted of either European colonies or former colonies (p. 1). He then maps the emergence of postcolonial thought as literary criticism, analyzing various relationships expressed through the literature between the colonizer and the colonized, but reaching the broader realities of “imperialism . . . slavery, settlement, resistance, revolt . . . nationalism” (p. 9). Moreover, the value of this type of criticism of the biblical text has been a hotbed for some years now, leading to the rise of a number of biblical scholars who detect the significance of imperial ideology within the first-century Jewish community and its relations with their Roman colonizers. However, Moore borrows another critical notion of “mimicry” from Homi Bhabha and Tat-siong Benny Leiw and employs it in his analyses of the Gospels of Mark, John, and the Apocalypse.
In chapter 2 Moore uses the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) as an entry point to “launch a ‘postcolonial’ reading” (p. 26). The “legion” are identified analogically with the Roman occupiers while the demonized stand for the “land and the people under occupation” (p. 26). The demonized being exemplifies “the colonial subject’s self-alienation when compelled to internalize the discourse of the colonizer” (p. 28). The entire scene reveals the deep conflict between oppressor and oppressed, while highlighting the resistance discourse that is both antagonistic and also mimics the colonizer. In the Gospel of John Jesus is a cosmic traveler from a distant land who establishes the empire to end all empires, and the narrative is likened to modern European colonial traveler narratives (p. 45).
One could criticize Moore’s admittedly allegorical readings as flawed, but that would miss the point, namely, that his approach is methodologically operating on a different paradigm (p. 27). He focuses on how the text stands against empire, and how the text takes on the ideological features of the colonizer, even in the resistance of the colonized.
For Moore, aspects of the Gospel portrayal of Jesus’ “Empire of God” (p. 37, n 29) and especially the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation take on the imperial images of Rome, while baptizing and repackaging them in their resistance to Roman colonization. He proposes the idea that in Revelation God is represented as Caesar (pp. 106–7). No doubt Moore’s conclusions are controversial and likely will find sparse acceptance in evangelical circles; however, that does not undermine the need to interact honestly with the ideas presented in this text.