BMCR 2020.01.25

The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion

Stephen J. Shoemaker, The Apocalypse of Empire: Imperial Eschatology in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. 260. ISBN 9780812250404 $59.95.

Preview

The Apocalypse of Empire is a study of eschatology in late antiquity with particular reference to early Islam. It is underpinned by two convictions: first, early Islam must be contextualized in the broader culture of the late ancient Near East, and second, early Islam must be examined using the same historico-critical methods as those we have used in the study of other religions for well over a century.

The book treats two main topics. The first topic is the eschatological context of early Islam. Here Shoemaker focuses on notions of eschatology and empire and demonstrates that in late antiquity, imperial conquest and eschatology often went hand in hand. Moreover, eschatological expectations were high among Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims alike. Second, on its way to contextualizing early Islam, the book looks at the broad history of apocalypticism in the religions of the ancient world, including Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and, briefly, paganism. Shoemaker argues against a widespread modern claim that apocalypse as a genre and worldview was naturally anti-imperial.

The book’s central idea and most important claim is that “earliest Islam was a movement driven by urgent eschatological belief that focused on the conquest—or liberation—of the biblical Holy Land” (1). This statement contains the two main topics mentioned above: eschatology on the one hand and the eschatologically-motivated imperial ambitions within early Islam on the other. In order to flesh out this claim, the book covers a lot of ground—a good eight centuries and dozens of documents in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic—and Shoemaker is eager to announce that the book is partly a work of synthesis, for which he will rely on the work of many scholars outside his particular expertise.

The basic structure of the book is as follows. First, it introduces apocalypticism and eschatology as objects of study in the academy. Second, it discusses eschatology in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East before Islam. And third, it analyzes Islam within the framework of the previous two discussions. The whole consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion.

The introduction discusses the book’s origin and lays out its plan. The book grew organically out of repeated questions put to Shoemaker after his lectures on an eschatological interpretation of Muhammad. Shoemaker had made such claims in his previous book, The Death of a Prophet; confronted with actual persons and their skepticism, he felt the need to make the case thoroughly, and this book is the result.

The first chapter covers theoretical and historical ground. Theoretically, it reviews scholarly literature on apocalypticism as resistance to imperial rule (especially Horsley, with a citation of Portier-Young),1 and discusses definitions of apocalypticism. Shoemaker himself employs the well-known definitions established by Collins et al.2 Historically, this approach looks first at ancient Jewish apocalyptic texts from the Greek and Roman eras that do evince an anti-imperial outlook, including those from Qumran. Jesus, Paul, and the Apocalypse of John receive a brief analysis. And in the final stretch of the chapter, Shoemaker looks at non-Jewish and non-Christian sources that bear on the question of eschatology and, in particular, two topoi: a succession of empires leading up to a final judgment and the notion of an eschatological king.

Chapters Two and Three look at the Roman and Byzantine empires, respectively. After a period of Christian quietism (excepting John’s Apocalypse), Christians in the third-century begin to view the Roman empire positively. A new idea arose in late antiquity: the Christian Roman empire is the New Israel, and Constantinople is the New Jerusalem. The Roman Empire is seen as the final world power that will hand over ultimate power to God at the eschaton. The emperor is a key actor in all this, and some texts develop the notion of a mythical Last Roman Emperor, who will conquer all God’s enemies and then travel to Jerusalem where he will lay down his crown and abdicate power to God.

In sixth- and seventh-century Byzantium, we arrive at a point where we can really begin to speak about the Near East as the religious and political backdrop of early Islam. Shoemaker adduces many texts and events that demonstrate rising eschatological expectations, but two are of sufficient weight to mention here. First, the discourse around Heraclius’ return of the True Cross to Jerusalem calls to mind the eschatological myth of the Last Roman Emperor. Second, a passage from the Qur’an (18.83-102) shows that Muhammad’s religious movement was in contact with the imperial eschatology of late antiquity (via the Syriac Alexander Legend).

Chapter Four demonstrates that the notion that the end of the world would come via imperial triumph permeated the Jewish and Zoroastrian religious cultures of the late ancient Near East. In the case of Judaism, while early Jewish apocalypses (e.g., 1 Enoch and Daniel) viewed empires negatively, late ancient Judaism regards empires more positively, as agents of divine restoration at the eschaton. Likewise, Sasanian rulers believed that they were acting out Zoroastrian mythological scripts in which the end of the world would be realized via the Persian empire.

Chapters Five and Six turn to Islam. Shoemaker reviews scholarship on differing interpretations of Muhammad and his mission (e.g., as a prophet of social justice or a pragmatic political reformer) and then demonstrates that Muhammad and his earliest followers seem to have been expecting the end of the world to occur at any time, probably within their own lifetimes. Such eschatological urgency, and a belief that the very formation of their community partly constituted the inauguration of the eschaton, fueled their conquest of the Near East. Chapter Six looks at the early Muslim conquests, focusing especially on the liberation of the Holy Land from infidels as an essential goal of the Muslims’ apocalyptic empire.

In the Conclusion, Shoemaker argues that, although the findings of his book may not accord with (a) those, whether scholars and otherwise, who wish to view Muhammad in a more positive light, and (b) the values of modern liberalism, nevertheless “we must confront the past for what it was and in some instances refuse to allow its antiquated and often severe values to define modern norms” (184).

The argument of this book is compelling. Based on its findings, there can be little doubt that Muhammad and his earliest followers were driven by an urgent imperial eschatology that featured long-standing topoi from the Mediterranean and Near East: a belief that earthly empires could or should help usher in the eschaton or move it along, the role of a Last Emperor and a Last Empire, and an obsessive focus on the Holy Land as a crucial place in the drama of the Last Day(s). Viewed in the light of their cultural milieu, Muhammad et al. are seen as playing out familiar eschatological scripts.

Shoemaker marshals dozens and dozens of documents, evenly covering the entire time period of his study, with little to no gaps in time or space, and handles his texts with impressive philological skill. The book deftly zooms back and forth between the forest and the trees, making broad claims while also arguing about minutiae in dating and reconstructing texts. Moreover, it is thoroughly documented and up to date on modern scholarship.

We should point out, however, that his evidence consists almost entirely of (highly literary) texts, and so at some level the book could be seen as more of an intellectual or cultural history of classical and late antiquity. And yet Shoemaker claims to be making historical assertions, that is, he aims to make a point about why certain historical actors actually performed certain actions in the past. Here his study is helped by numerous moments when he connects ideas in these texts with things that actual people did. This provides a proof of concept and then some: the idea is that not only can we imagine people guiding imperial policy in such and such a way based on eschatological beliefs, but we have actual historical examples of the ancients doing so. From this perspective, Muhammad’s imperial eschatology is in no way unusual and is eminently plausible. Moreover, the book is not simply a work of intellectual history, but of historical individuals.

While I found this book both fascinating and important, nevertheless, as a classicist, I have been challenged to think of who might most benefit from reading it—or, perhaps more puzzling, who might actually read it. It is highly specialized, so its readership will likely be limited to scholars rather than (even the most dedicated) lay readers. I could see advisors assigning parts of it to very advanced graduate students in niche areas. Beyond this, scholars interested in the origins of Islam will have to engage with Shoemaker’s work, here and in his The Death of a Prophet (see Chapter Three, ‘The Beginnings of Islam and the End of Days: Muhammad as Eschatological Prophet’). Scholars of late antiquity especially interested in politics and religion will want to consider how Shoemaker’s demonstration of the widespread nature of eschatological beliefs fits into their current understanding of the cultural milieu. Scholars of Christianity (of any time and place) will benefit from asking how Islam’s eschatology and eschatological origins are similar to and different from Christianity’s. As classicists, we have to wonder: is eschatology limited to Abrahamic traditions (and the Stoics)?

Aside from the book’s main thrust about the connection between imperial ambition and eschatological belief in Late Antiquity, its most important contributions right now are Shoemaker’s statements, in the Conclusion, about ancient realities and modern sentiments. He very deftly anticipates criticism from those with a personal stake in this or that vision of Muhammad, clearly lays out the goals of a scholar, and manages to elicit further discussion among all parties without disrespecting the former or compromising the principles of the latter. In religious studies, Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” has become required reading;3 to this I would add Shoemaker’s Conclusion. Frankly, I would urge every scholar of antiquity to read this book’s final pages.

I found one typo, of no gravity: p. 71, “has to with his classicizing style” should be “has to do with his classicizing style.”

Notes

1. R. A. Horsley, Revolt of the Scribes: Resistance and Apocalyptic Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) and A. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2011).

2. J. J. Collins, “Introduction: Toward the Morphology of a Genre”, in Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, edited by J. J. Collins (Semeia 14; Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1979), pp. 1-19.

3. Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method”, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17 (2005): 8-10, reprinted in Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 1-3.