Sarah Emanuel, Roasting Rome: Humor, Resistance, and Jewish Cultural Persistence in the Book of Revelation. PhD Dissertation, Drew University Graduate Division of Religion, 2017.
My dissertation developed out of weakness—a gap, really, in my doctoral work. When I began my studies as a PhD student, I struggled remembering which scholar said what in conversation with whom. The mapping of the discourse got lost, often, in what felt like a pile of threads in front of me.
I thus made it my goal to develop the skill of conversing—of registering in what ways scholars were entering the academic conversation(s) and how I, too, could become a part of it all. In doing this work, I not only developed the depth and breadth required of a doctoral candidate, but also, if not more so, began to notice the ways in which certain connections had yet to be made within the field itself. The “filling-ins” of my own gaps, in other words, left a trail of ones lingering within the biblical field.
Allow me, then, to introduce the scope of the project, and to then unpack how it fosters a “meeting of threads” that, at least to me, appear no longer lost.
My dissertation, by and large, explores Revelation’s subversions through the lens of the comic. Throughout the project, I argue that Revelation is a postcolonial Jewish narrative of “becoming” that uses humor as a mode of opposition and repair in the face of imperial trauma. By putting humor and trauma theories in conversation with the postcolonial and historical theoretical view that Revelation is a counter-imperial text—a text that emerges out of and also writes back to Roman imperial subjugation—I illustrate that Revelation implements humor as an articulation of its anti-imperial resistance (it’s ex-centricity, as Homi K. Bhabha would say), as well as a means by which to construct a resistant and persistent Jewish selfhood. While Revelation’s satiric attacks against local adversaries consolidate for readers “who” and “what” constitutes the “right” Jewish cultural self for Revelation, its comedic portrayals of global adversaries work to erode the dominant transcript in which that Jewish cultural self has been deemed “Other than.”
In order to do this work, I first establish that Revelation is a Roman period Jewish text. Whereas in many contemporary contexts Revelation might best be analyzed as Christian in that it informs Christian communal memory and identity—or even in that many Christians consider it “theirs”—historically speaking, the category “Christian” cannot be so easily applied to the book of Revelation. To be a Jesus-follower in the first century CE meant believing that Jesus was the Christos, the “messiah.” This belief stemmed from Jewish tradition; as scholars are more frequently highlighting, it did not counter, challenge, or contradict how Judaism perceived itself. This does not mean, however, that Jewishness in the first century was uniform and/or static. Revelation is positioned within this diverse Jewish matrix, made up of numerous groups and subgroups. Through the text’s comic subversions, it not only combats Rome, but also negotiates a particular type of Jewishness within the text’s imaginary. This is also not to say, of course, that Revelation, its author, or its intended audiences occupied a space somehow separate from the larger cultural milieu. Just as many scholars have recently contended that all Judaism in the Hellenistic period was Hellenistic Judaism, regardless of whether it operated within or outside of Judea, or whether the community drew strong borders over and against Greek culture, I argue that Revelation is a Hellenistic Jewish text, written by a Hellenistic sectarian Jew.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that despite Revelation’s ex-centricity, its relations to Empire and imperial power are ambivalent. Revelation, put simply, inevitably swallows imperial court ceremonial only to carry the caloric enterprise on its own hips. This ironic rhetorical effect extends to Revelation’s use of humor. Implicitly, the text depicts Christ as a newer and better Caesar, but in doing so, the vitriolic humor that it directs against Caesar and the Roman Empire attaches itself to Christ’s and God’s Empire, a development that, I argue, goes against the grain of the text’s interests and has the effect of turning the joke on itself. Just as a “roaster” today often mocks and praises his or her subject via obscene gestures and humorous insults, so too does the Apocalypse seem to simultaneously detest and desire the imperial throne. A major question I attempt to answer in this dissertation, then, is how to deal with this contradiction—how to make sense of Revelation’s simultaneous anti-imperial and pro-imperial worldview.
These ideas, again, developed out of lack. In my attempt to discern in which ways academicians were connecting conversation with conversation, I noticed pieces missing. For example, and in reference to my dissertation in particular, although empire-critical and postcolonial readings of Revelation are now commonplace, I have yet to find a study that puts these views into conversation with Jewish trauma and Jewish cultural survival strategies (including, but not limited to humor). More pointedly, while scholars often highlight the relationality of Revelation to Empire, a thoroughgoing reading that situates its relationality within a context of Jewish subalternity has not been done. A close reading of Revelation as employing aspects of both Jewish and Greco-Roman humor is also nonexistent. While studies of biblical narratives, particularly those in the Hebrew Bible, have shown how the texts can implement elements of humor as a cultural survival strategy, the book of Revelation has yet to receive a substantial reading of this kind. This project thus adds to the scholarly conversation by not only recognizing Revelation as a text responding to imperial Rome, but also by expanding the discourse to include matters related to Jewishness and the use of humor as a method of Jewish survival.
Views to survival often also require views to women. I make this connection at various points throughout the project by conversing with such scholars as Tina Pippin, Hanna Stenström, and Shanell T. Smith who suggest that the text’s use of violent and misogynistic imagery (whether read as reinscriptions of Roman ideologies or not) are harmful to real readers. However, while I agree that Revelation’s rhetoric participates in the construction of oppressive structures, this dissertation diverges from these thinkers by suggesting that, even if harmful—both to readers in front of the text and to the implied community’s own recovery process—the violent, androcentric, and patriarchal rhetoric extended throughout Revelation, including its uses of humor becomes more understandable when integrated with a hermeneutic of trauma. By reading for projective-identification and trauma enactment in Revelation’s introjections of imperial mores, we may find that our responses to its violent humor help us to better understand the text’s own affect.
In doing this integrative work, I engage three primary theoretical resources: postcolonial theory (including postcolonial trauma theory), humor theory, and the dialogism of Mikhail Bakhtin. First, I situate Revelation within a Jewish context of imperial trauma. In so doing, I not only analyze the ways in which the Apocalypse responds to and attempts to survive Jewish communal suffering he will begin hera affectively s project, ions,r, lege. or the 2017-2018 academic year, and looks forward to beginning her work(i.e., eroding colonizing ideologies via humorous subversion), but also read Revelation as an act of communal repair (i.e., reclaiming the colonial past and present through narrative ). Humor theory then helps me to illustrate Revelation’s use of the comic as a survival tactic in the face of such trauma. I demonstrate that humor at the expense of local and global adversaries in Revelation works to both construct an implied Jewish self and erode the dominant transcript in which that self has been deemed “Other than.” By mocking Rome and Roman sympathizers via the Empire’s own comedic apparatus, as well as drawing upon Jewish devices and gestures, Revelation creates a comic counterworld in which John’s sectarian group—the cultural “not hero”—outwits Rome, if only for a moment. Finally, in order to recognize Revelation’s multiple networks of textuality, as well as the historical pointedness of its anti-imperial rhetoric, I rely on Bakhtinian dialogism to better explore the relationships between texts and contexts in and around Empire and imperial trauma. While a postcolonial hermeneutic, for instance, recognizes Revelation’s relations to Empire and situates it within an ambivalent attraction-repulsion position toward imperial Rome—particularly via postcolonial trauma theory and Homi Bhabha’s notions of postcolonial ambivalence, mimicry, and hybridity—a dialogical analysis further illustrates the extent to which the text appropriates both Jewish and Greco-Roman texts/contexts/discourses into its own worldview. This dissertation relies on each of these theories, often simultaneously, to address the question of Revelation’s relations to Empire and imperial power by reading Revelation as a Jewish postcolonial text negotiating communal trauma, and by arguing that its representation of Christ, God, and Rome are informed by Roman comic motifs and genres, as well as by a narrative use of humor in traditional Jewish texts that functions as a subversive gesture of cultural persistence.
In addition to an introduction and a conclusion, this project is divided into five chapters. The first outlines the academic trajectories of Revelation scholarship with which it most directly converges and builds upon—namely, conversations related to Revelation and Judaism, Revelation and Empire, and Revelation and imperial trauma. I begin this chapter by introducing the standard reading of Revelation as a Christian, or, at best, a Jewish-Christian text. In doing so, I present Philip Mayo’s “Those Who Call Themselves Jews”: The Church and Judaism in the Apocalypse of John as representative of this approach. Included in this overview are discussions on “The Parting of the Ways Debate,” the multiplicity of ancient Judaism, and ancient Judaism’s relations to the larger Greco-Roman world. Here, I show that Revelation’s internal evidence suggests a Jewish implied author and audience, who are, even if resistant, fully embedded in the larger Greco-Roman world. The following sections of this chapter focus on Revelation’s relations to Empire and imperial trauma. In them, I illustrate the ways in which we can make sense of Revelation as a response to Empire and imperial subjugation. This works to not only further situate my reading within a postcolonial conversation, but to also illustrate more clearly Revelation’s traumatic Sitz im Leben and sets up a reading of Revelation’s use of humor as a response to it.
Throughout Chapter One, I also illustrate in more detail the theoretical orientation of this project. While my focus on Revelation’s relations to Judaism, Empire, and trauma grounds my reading in historical criticism, I also combine a postcolonial hermeneutic with Bakhtinian dialogism to suggest that Revelation interacts with a complex web of textual relations, including those related to Jewish-Greco-Roman scripts, trauma, and, as seen in detail throughout this project, humor. I argue that Revelation implements a dialogical use of humor—a humor associated with both Jewish and Greco-Roman comic scripts—that is then used as a mode of opposition and repair in the face of imperial trauma. This chapter, paired with the next, thus works not only to explain in more detail a postcolonial dialogical view—a view that relies on a Hellenic-Jewish historical backdrop—but to also indicate how trauma theory, trauma theory’s relations to postcolonial theory, and ultimately humor theory’s relations to postcolonial and anti-imperial resistance literatures frame my reading of the text.
In Chapter Two, I outline in more detail Revelation’s relations to humor. Here, I not only illustrate the ways in which humor can be—and has been—used as a survival tactic in the face of trauma, but also situate our reading of Revelation’s humor within a Jewish-Greco-Roman worldview. The comic in antiquity was not all light-hearted. From comedy, to satire, to imperial festival and spectacle, humor throughout the Greco-Roman world often presented the grotesque, the obscene, and the incongruous. Readers of this project will find that much of the humor evoked in Roman antiquity—and, subsequently, in Revelation—is more akin to South Park or Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist histories than, say, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. By weaving the work outlined in Chapters One and Two together, I argue that, while trauma fills the book of Revelation through its negotiations of past/present Jewish subalternity and colonial subjection, its very claiming of a traumatic past/present, paired with its comical representation of its adversaries, works to construct a resistant and persistent Jewish selfhood.
Chapter Three is the first exegetical chapter. Here, I read with the grain of Revelation’s humor to illustrate how its comical representations of local adversaries—primarily “Balaam” and “Jezebel”—work to define members of Revelation’s Jewish in-group. In doing so, I show that, through a dialogical use of humor, the Apocalypse attempts to draw a line between its implied internal “us” and its implied internal “them.” This struggle for self-definition is an important part of the text’s postcoloniality. Not only do colonized groups, in writing back to Empire, often attempt to erode the dominant transcript that declares them Other than, but also, in doing so, struggle internally to define who the colonized are and who the colonized will be. This chapter suggests that Revelation’s lampooning of fellow Christ-followers is part of its attempt at communal self-definition and, in turn, its own particular attempt at communal repair. Although Revelation relies on Greco-Roman humor to construct a Jewish self, most of its dialogical cues, in its construction of an internal “us” and “them,” come from Jewish sources. This does not negate the text’s hybridity, or its understanding of humor based on larger Jewish-Greco-Roman referents, but rather indicates a more localized borrowing of humor for a more localized, self-defining purpose. To put it otherwise: Revelation implements a more localized humor to target a more proximate Other.
Chapter Four is a continuation of the third. Instead of focusing on local adversaries, however, I read with the grain of the text to suggest that the Apocalypse’s humor continues through its representations of Empire and imperial rulers. By constructing implied Jewish audiences as its heroes—and then constructing its implied, colonizing global adversaries (e.g., Babylon/Rome, Sea Beast/Caesars) as its implied, comic butts—Revelation creates a comic counterworld in which its storytelling community reigns high over and against the Roman imperial community. In addition, as we move from Revelation’s defining of the in-group to its targeting of the larger Empire, we see that its hybridity deepens. Rather than focusing on more internal cues to define “us” and “them,” Revelation implements a more expansive dialogic as a form of catachresis—a subversive rewriting of the Empire’s comic scripts. Those familiar with the Jewishness of Revelation’s catachrestic tricks will be able to recognize the retooling and, moreover, the undermining of appropriative imperial ideology.
Chapter Five, which is the last exegetical chapter, offers a reading against the grain. Here, I take a step back from analyzing Revelation’s local and global adversaries to analyze one of its primary heroes, the Christ/Lamb, focusing on his simultaneous rejection of Empire and appropriation of Empire’s androcentric, patriarchal, and violent ideologies. A major question I ask here is: does the text’s dialogism fall into an unintentional monologism? Does Revelation, in other words, construct its own ostensibly authoritative power center through its own anti-imperial attacks? The answer, I argue, is: yes. Throughout this chapter, I illustrate that the catachrestic humor used to overcome Revelation’s enemies ultimately attaches back onto Christ and, in turn, the text itself. As noted above, Christ becomes a newer and better Caesar, while Christ’s New Jerusalem—the text’s olam haba (“world to come”)—becomes the new Rome. Bhabha’s notions of postcolonial ambivalence, mimicry, and hybridity are particularly useful in this chapter, as they help negotiate Revelation’s complicated pro/anti imperial constructions.
Finally, while Chapters Three, Four, and Five focus on Revelation’s use of humor as a mode of opposition and repair, they also spotlight, at various moments, Revelation’s claiming of Jewish subalternity as part of its defining of Jewish self/culture and writing back to Empire. As readers will see, the book of Revelation seeks to both claim Jewish imperial subjugation, an important part of the text’s own “becoming”/construction of the in-group/writing back to Empire, and to rewrite, through humor, the dominant imperial transcript through which the Jews are deemed Other. The concluding chapter, although a summation of the project, ends with an engagement of projective-identification and trauma enactment, which serves to help us understand more affectively Revelation’s introjection of imperial mores from the perspective of the colonized.
My overall point is this: in the pursuit of unpacking a text and analyzing how it is situated in its history, the integration of threads creates space for both expansion and nuance. For example, if we read Revelation as a Hellenistic Jewish text, we are better equipped to recognize the ways in which the Apocalypse implements popular aspects of the comic as a survival strategy—as a means by which to undermine Rome and, ultimately, create a “signal of transcendence” for its implied sectarian counterparts. As the title of this project suggests, Revelation “roasts” Rome—both humorously and via imagined incendiary flame (see Rev. 17:16; 18:8)—to the extent of creating a new world order in which the implied Jewish Other reigns supreme over and against the Roman imperial order. Rather than wallow in the repeated diminishment of a Jewish marginal self, the text combats Rome and Roman sympathizers via parodic and venomous depictions of them. In short, the text creates a comic counterworld—one in which Rome is fool and its implied Jewish counterparts thrive (or so they hope) under God’s new Empire.
Dr. Sarah Emanuel is Faculty Fellow of Biblical Studies at Colby College. Her first book, Humor, Resistance, and Jewish Cultural Persistence in the Book of Revelation: Roasting Rome is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press (expected 2019).