A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Mark Joseph Kiefer
The Alter-Imperial Paradigm was written by Shane J. Wood, and this book serves as the publication of his PhD dissertation. Wood completed his PhD from the University of Edinburgh (UK), and he currently serves as Professor of New Testament Studies and the Associate Academic Dean at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri. Among other places, Wood has published in Expository Times, and he has contributed to works including Currents in British Research on the Apocalypse along with Dragons, John and Every Grain of Sand: Essays on the Book of Revelation.
In The Alter-Imperial Paradigm, Wood intends to “resurrect the voice of the marginalized author of Revelation (cf. Rev 1:9),” who addresses those “in search of their suppressed identity on the ideological fringes of society” (70). Wood claims to achieve this by constructing the “Alter-Imperial paradigm”—a “reorganization” of Revelation’s “theoretical background,” which is sourced from the biblical scholarship of Empire Studies and informs imperial inquiry. He asserts that applying his paradigm, even to problematic texts, “offers a fresh vantage point with which to view the imagery of the Apocalypse” (26). This then enables Revelation’s reader to both grasp how the Apocalypse interacts with the Roman Empire and to avoid reductionistic, non-cosmically focused interpretations (26–27). In other words, Wood’s paradigm frames Revelation’s imagery such that the reader may recognize the greater, alternative conception of reality beyond that of simply the worldly empire and its authority and reign. He makes his argument in the following series of steps.
First, Wood introduces his topic and scholarship relevant to his discussion. Second, he reviews insights from historical Empire Studies. Third, Wood observes several weaknesses in historical Empire Studies and suggests the Alter-Imperial paradigm as the solution. Fourth, he considers the imperial propaganda of the Roman Empire. Fifth, he evaluates Revelation’s authorship date to discern the nature of the ruling dynasty’s Christian persecution. Sixth, he applies the Alter-Imperial paradigm as an interpretive lens through which to gage how Revelation 20:7–10, an especially challenging text, interacts with the Roman Empire. Finally, Wood analyzes the effects of applying the paradigm and draws inferences to answer how Revelation interacts with the Roman Empire more broadly.
This work is valuable not only because it provides plausible significance for specific imagery in Revelation, but also because it offers meaningful explanations for Revelation’s historically enigmatic passages while broadening the significance of the Apocalypse overall. Wood’s audience is the Christian seminary student or scholar, and the following is a summary and evaluation of his work.
First, Wood introduces pertinent subject matter by considering historical studies related to his pursuit. He begins by reviewing Revelation scholarship from the previous 125 years including intertextual (2–7), historical (7–10), and sociological studies (10–16), and he subsequently discusses the advent of imperial studies in the recent twenty-five years (16–21). Wood then offers from this survey several observations for empire studies on the significance of the “perspective of the oppressed,” the “presence of persecution,” the “socio-historical setting,” and the “imperial cult” (21–26) all as a lead up to his thesis (26–27).
After his introduction, Wood mentions insights from historical Empire Studies. While noting other interpretive methods (31–36), he asserts that “Postcolonial Criticism” and “Examinations of Dominance” supply significant insights for navigating Empire Studies (36). For Wood, Postcolonial Criticism restores voice and identity to the ostracized by critiquing the ancient text and its interpretations so as “to construct a lucid reading from the perspective of the marginalized” (38–41). Examinations of Dominance include James Scott’s ideas on the “public transcript” as the rulers’ united and enacted world, the “dominant hidden transcript” as the rulers’ private arena for managing disagreement, and the “subject hidden transcript” that “exists to contradict the public transcript and not reinforce it” (44–50). Wood agrees with Scott that subjects use “rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theater” in their hidden transcript to subtly criticize power in the public transcript and thus “regain dignity and establish an identity” (53). In other words, Wood sees Postcolonialism and Examinations of Dominance as revealing typical power dynamics between the dominant and oppressed peoples in a society.
Then, Wood cautions against common interpretive dangers in Revelation including “anti-imperial assumptions” (57–62), “textual assertions” (62–68), and “historical-contextual ambiguity” (68–70). For instance, in noting scholarship that cherry picks texts, assigns imperial ideas, and avoids explaining “a politically benign section (Rev 1; 10:1–11:18; etc.) or even a theologically encumbered text (Rev 19:11–21; 20:1–10; etc.)” (66), Wood presents the risk of arriving at fragile interpretive frameworks for Revelation. To mitigate such risk, Wood posits his Alter-Imperial Paradigm, which “allows for elements of subversion, acquiescence, both, or neither in the subject text” and works “through the construction of  the sovereign narrative of the Roman Empire and  ‘points of conversation’ in the subject narrative” (70–71).
Subsequently, Wood identifies imperial propaganda throughout Rome. He says that for the Roman Empire, “every item (coins, weapons, altars, etc.) and every encounter (funerals, festivals, triumphs, etc.) was an opportunity to communicate the sovereign narrative” (77). That is, Rome’s messaging was personal, interactive, and ubiquitous, and Wood goes on to add that its message was threefold: “ The Roman Empire is the ruler of the kings of the earth;  The Roman Empire is favored by the gods; and  The Roman Empire is the bearer of Pax.” (83). He views this first message as propagandized by writers, geographical depictions, and coins (83–88) along with the Flavian dynasty’s replacing Rome’s civil war history with its conquering of the Jewish and British peoples (88–91).
Regarding the second, Wood’s sees that the Romans causally connected their piety to divine favor and wartime victory (91). Thus, its rulers prioritized temple construction, priestly appointments, preserving religious works, and embracing religious names all with the result of prominently projecting divine favor (91–95). And Wood says Rome pushed its third message in its literature, inscriptions, temple rituals, coinage in both Augustus’s and the Flavian dynasties (96–102). Significantly, Rome’s triumphal procession integrated all three messages into an “elaborate parade” bidding viewers “to participate in it,” and crucial to this event “was the procession of the chief enemy leader bound in chains” (102–108). In sum, Rome’s imperial propaganda relentlessly projected its claim to world rule, caused by divine favor, and bringing about universal peace, and it actively called its recipients to participate (109).
Next, Wood argues for Revelation’s late date authorship (92–96 CE) based on both external and internal evidence. As to the former, he states that “the early Christian witness overwhelmingly supports the late-date,” and he goes on to both cite a variety of early sources and defend specifically Irenaeus’s witness (112–16). Regarding internal evidence, Wood evaluates three significant texts and concludes that 1) John wrote of a temple (Rev 11:1–2) when the physical temple did not exist, 2) interpreting the beast’s number 666 (Rev 13:18) as Nero is “inadequate,” and 3) using the succession of Roman emperors in Revelation 17:9–11 to glean the date of its authorship entails “significant flaws and methodological peculiarities” (116–31). For Wood, then, a Domitianic date remains the most plausible time of Revelation’s authorship.
Wood also argues for Revelation’s late date authorship based on the ruling dynasty’s Christian persecution. He first cites a problem in claiming late date authorship—the mismatch of persecution in Revelation and its apparent lack under Domitian—and then evaluates standard solutions and their rejoinders (132–39). Wood determines that historical studies fail to include non-physical persecution, a legitimate reading of Revelation’s Christian persecution, and second and third century physical persecution suggests underlying first century non-physical persecution (140–49). He further argues that since the Flavian dynasty promoted anti-Jewish sentiment (150–59), an anti-Jewish milieu grew under Domitian (159–75), and most did not distinguish Jews from Christians after 70 CE (176–84), Christians likely experienced non-physical persecution that occasioned physical acts of persecution under Domitian’s reign—a conclusion Wood sees as aligning with Revelation’s picture of Christian persecution (184–85).
After that, Wood uses his Alter-Imperial paradigm as a framework through which to judge how Revelation 20:7–10 interacts with the Roman Empire. Considering the passage’s difficulty, Wood first critiques deficient approaches including the “theological systems” method with its positions based on one’s millennial view (189–93). Then, he observes Revelation’s literary structure noting Revelation 20:7–10’s significance as “the climactic tension” before the book’s peak in 21:1–8 (193–97). Next, he finds from Revelation 20:1–3 and 7–10 that God releases Satan from the pit, but after Satan’s release, he remains in chains (197–98). This leads Wood to connect Rev 20:7–10 with the Roman triumphal procession—an event entailing “people in white garments” looking on, a parading of military spoils, and “the emergence of  the triumphant emperor and  the chief enemy leader bound in chains” (199–203).
He argues that this procession was of such importance for propagandizing onlookers and merging them into participants that the procession itself “decorated the cities and adorned imperial coinage” (203–208). After that, Wood notes links between Rome’s triumphal procession and Revelation 19:11–21 and 20:7–10 (209–16). He says that the former text presents Jesus “as ‘the son of god’ who rides in his father’s triumphal procession on a single white horse” (211) with the latter depicting God “as sovereignly leading Satan, the bound captive, to God’s intended destination: Satan’s execution” (213). For Wood, Revelation shows that “the war is won through Christ’s victory on the cross (i.e., Rev 12:10–11; 19:13). The battle, however, is left open-ended until the triumphal procession” (215).
Finally, Wood analyzes the effects of applying the paradigm and draws significant inferences to answer how Revelation interacts with the Roman Empire. For example, he finds that “the triumphal procession imagery in Revelation 20:7–10 reveals the key antagonist of the subject narrative: Satan. Not Rome” (219). Wood means that while some find Revelation to be an anti-Rome document, his paradigm shows Revelation’s horizon to be higher and cosmic. Wood supports this conclusion by noting that Revelation further stylizes OT beast imagery and “purposefully connects figures of good and evil in deliberate pairings” including the beast of the sea and Jesus, the beast of the earth and the Holy Spirit, Satan and the Father, and followers of both the evil and good triad (220–27).
In other words, Revelation presents Rome as merely following the evil triad, and thus a subordinate figure in the cosmic story. For Wood then, Revelation’s imagery “clarifies the central enemy for the Christians in Asia Minor” to be Satan (229), and it “construct[s] the ‘alter-empire’ of the triad of good” (230). Wood understands Jesus’s sacrifice (“suffering” and “patient endurance”) and victory on the cross as creating this alter-empire to be “a ‘kingdom and priests’” with “sacrifice and witness” as its “politics of conquest” (contra the evil empire’s “blasphemy and deception”) (230–34). Consequently, he infers that “Revelation calls the churches to reflect the politics of conquest displayed in the triad of good: sacrificial non-violence . . . the means through which conquest is secured” (236–37). Wood sees that the goal of such acts “is the repentance of the agents of evil” (238). He concludes by arguing that Revelation intends to construct the alter-imperial paradigm to present for the church the cosmic battle as beyond the public transcript and first century Rome (242–43).
One strength of Wood’s book is that before arguing his own thesis, he evaluates other scholarly approaches for understanding how Revelation interacts with the Roman Empire. For example, he identifies one approach as “Old Testament intertextuality,” he catalogues numerous scholarly contributions to that field (2n5, 3n6, 3n7, 3n9, 4n10), and he concludes that the approach remains inadequate because it does not explain Revelation’s alterations or deviations from precise OT forms (2–7). By first assessing historical scholarship on approaches to understanding Revelation, Wood shows that he has measured the benefits of prior methods and thus poises his reader to accept his ensuing contributions, which build on these historical studies. This is a strength of his book.
A second strength of Wood’s work is his conclusion from dominance studies that despite silence in public records, a subjected people yet find a voice and identity through subtle means. For instance, he notes the complex dynamics between subjects and the sovereign and then asserts, “other forms of resistance, outside of open rebellion, exist and are implemented on a daily basis. . . . the voices of the subjects are intentionally suppressed . . . any analysis based exclusively on the public transcript is likely to conclude that subordinate groups endorse the terms of their subordination” (54–55).
In other words, Wood finds that one should not expect to discern from public records oppression of and resistance from the dominated, for the sovereign regulates these records. Instead, dominated subjects employ veiled opposition through a “subject transcript,” a descriptor Wood paradigm’s assigns to John’s Apocalypse (55–56). In showing both that “public transcripts” tend to quell subject voices and suggest subject compliance and that “subject transcripts” give voice to the oppressed, Wood orients his reader both to accept the presence of subject-sovereign conflict under Domitians reign (despite its apparent lack in public records) and to appreciate Revelation as a “subject transcript” relating to the “public transcript.” This enables Revelation’s reader to better grasp how the Apocalypse conveys its message, and thus it supports his thesis.
Another strength of Wood’s book includes his careful presentation of Rome’s triumphal procession as a centralized propaganda vehicle. He delineates Rome’s means and messages of propaganda (79–102), he shows these to coalesce in Rome’s triumphal procession (102–108), and he concludes that the procession was an example of propaganda that “invited the empire’s subjects to participate in the sovereign narrative that presented a world in which the Roman Empire was the ruler of the kings of the earth, because they were favored by the gods, which resulted in Roman Pax” (109). As a result, Wood gives to his reader the conversation point with which he later claims Revelation 20:7–10 interacts. That is, since Wood later argues that the events of Revelation 20:7–10 must be understood with the Roman triumphal procession in mind, his meticulous illustration of this contextual referent prepares his reader with the pertinent background to see and assent to his coming argument. This serves to bolster Wood’s effort.
A fourth strength of Wood’s work involves his thoughtful analysis of Revelation’s authorship date, which then brackets and thus clarifies possible referents for Revelation’s imagery. For example, his four observations supporting the claim that Christians experienced non-physical and occasionally physical persecution under Domitian’s reign (176–184) confronts scholarship that denies a late authorship date on grounds of dissonance between Revelation’s clear indication of Christian persecution and the apparent lack in the historical record. In overcoming this objection and establishing Revelation’s late authorship date (92–96 CE), Wood may now look beyond 70 CE to the Flavian Dynasty’s triumphal procession of 71 CE as a chief point of conversation with which Revelation interacts. Thus, Wood’s dating Revelation clarifies for his reader the Roman context from which John would have drawn imagery referents, and it gives credence to Wood before he constructs his alter imperial paradigm from these imagery referents. All of this supports the goals of his book.
Wood further strengthens his thesis by showing how his paradigm handles an enigmatic text. He says that “If, however, Revelation’s interaction with the Roman Empire is to be adequately explored, then even the most obscure passages must be considered for the overall portrait painted in the Apocalypse” (67). Thus, he constructs his paradigm from Revelations points of conversation with the Roman Empire, he applies the paradigm to Revelation 20, and he finds correspondence with Rome’s triumphal procession, an event that sometimes “does not occur for months or even years after the battle was won, the chief enemy leader is not killed but imprisoned to preserve this ‘crucial final detail’ of the procession when the war’s delayed consummation becomes a reality” (212).
Then, he connects this with Satan being “bound (20:2) and imprisoned (20:3a) to preserve him for the divinely ordained moment of his release, which is emphasized in 20:3b, “he must be let out for a short time” (212). By applying his alter-imperial paradigm to a particularly puzzling text, Wood builds confidence that his paradigm’s unique interpretive framework can handle difficult texts where other historical studies and approaches have struggled. This is a strength of his work.
One weakness of Wood’s work involves his difficult to parse thesis. Throughout his work, he clearly annunciates and repeats his research question, “How does Revelation interact with the Roman Empire?” and he lays out his methodology for developing his thesis chapter by chapter (26). However, his thesis, which must entail “construct[ing] the Alter-Imperial paradigm in order to directly address the stated research question” (26) requires piecing together on the part of the reader. In one sentence, he passively states that Revelation’s theoretical background “is repositioned” (26) presumably by his paradigm. In another he implies that his paradigm entails this “reorganization” (26).
In a third sentence he says that applying his paradigm reveals Revelation’s intent of a cosmic and not an earthly horizon (26). In still a fourth sentence he argues that his paradigm helps to avoid reductionistic interpretations of Revelation and its imagery (27). Then, dozens of pages later, Wood appears to for the first time introduce a primary aim of constructing and applying his paradigm: to “resurrect the voice of the marginalized author of Revelation” (70). These sentences all seem to form his thesis and purpose, but given how disparately Wood arranged them, the reader grasps for precisely what Wood intends to argue. This is a weakness of his work.
Another weakness of Wood’s book is the less than obvious meaning of the title of his work. The reader wonders, “What does Wood mean by ‘Alter’ in ‘Alter-Imperial Paradigm’”? He eventually says, “the Apocalypse uses imperial imagery to reveal the key antagonist (Satan) and to construct the ‘alter-empire’ of the triad of good” (230), he cites Fiorenza who describes “Jesus as the one ‘who created an alternative reign and community’ (230n43), and asserts that “the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross that creates a “kingdom and priests,” an alter-empire” (231). However, these clarifications come hundreds of pages into his work and in footnotes. In the meantime, the reader suspects that Wood intends the notion of “alternative” and perhaps even an “alternative to the empire,” but by not clarifying his title early on, his argument comes across as unclear and somewhat ambiguous. This too is a weakness.
One other weakness of his work includes his limited application of his paradigm to one of Revelation’s difficult text—Revelation 20. Of course, this text is very difficult and thus makes for a strong case study. However, would his paradigm be sufficiently robust to explain other challenging passages? For example, Robert Mounce raises the problem of “the presence of Gentiles outside the heavenly Jerusalem following the final judgment, the overthrow of evil, and the restoration of a new heaven and earth” (Rev 21:24–26; 22:2, 15) (Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 396). Are there points of conversation with the Roman Empire relevant to framing and thus explaining this text? And what other ambiguous texts might Wood’s paradigm help untangle? Wood skillfully shows that Revelation indeed points its reader to the cosmic horizon with Satan being the chief enemy rather than Rome, but the reader wonders what additional insights may be gained by applying the paradigm to other challenging passages.
In Wood’s Alter-Imperial Paradigm, he evaluates relevant historical scholarship, he constructs his paradigm in light of the Roman Empire’s imperial propaganda and context, and he applies the paradigm as a frame through which to see Revelation interacting with the Roman Empire. In so doing, Wood succeeds in presenting John’s Apocalypse as giving voice and identity to a subjected people, as revealing the battle occurring between good and evil triads on the cosmic horizon, and as summoning its readers to live in accordance with Jesus’s politics of conquest in his alter-imperial kingdom. The content of the book aligns well with the intended audience of seminary level students or scholars, and Wood certainly contributes to scholarship in pointing out the parallels and possible significance of the triumphal procession as it pertains to Revelation.
Though not without several areas of improvement, I find this book to be both helpful and intriguing. Not only does it offer a novel approach to understanding aspects of interpretively challenging parts of Revelation, but it also stimulates discussion about the significance of Revelation 20—one of the most difficult texts in the book. In that Wood’s work offers an approach for making broad conclusions about the book of Revelation, I plan to reference it on such matters.
Mark Joseph Kiefer, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
THE ALTER-IMPERIAL PARADIGM: EMPIRE STUDIES & THE BOOK OF REVELATION, by Shane J. Wood