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Postcolonial Readings of Revelation

If you look at the Book of Revelation, even long before postcolonial interpretation came up, you saw scholars attentive to how the beast, for instance, is given as an allusion to past empires and especially the Roman Empire; and how the Book of Revelation is really taking shots at the Roman Empire when it’s being critical of the beast. That Babylon (even though it is named after a prior empire) that Babylon, the woman imagined in Revelation 18, is really standing in for the Roman Empire; that’s actually very classical, it’s not the postcolonial questions.

The postcolonial questions come in about the ways that there’s an ambivalence especially inherent in how the Roman Empire gets represented. So, if you think about the early Jewish and Christian communities that were writing and engaging these texts, they’re a dominated minority under Roman imperial power. They’re oftentimes living in diaspora away from what had been their home which is at the time of 70 C.E.—which most people think is before the time the Book of Revelation is written—has been occupied, the temple has been flattened by the Roman army.

So, what you then see in the case of the Book of Revelation is this critique of Roman imperial occupation but at the same time the fascination with the manifestations of Roman power. Look at the portrayal of the Lord’s court, God’s court in chapter 4, for instance, it really mimics a lot of Roman imperial garb, so the postcolonial questions, when you’re just trying to situate Revelation in its ancient context, are querying the issues of ambivalence that are going on there: what does it mean on the one hand, to critique the Roman Empire, but on the other hand, mimic some of its styles and patterns?

So what happens as the text travels? What happens when you have now an imperial Christianity under Constantine reading the Book of Revelation; and how do they pick up threads of empire in that book and use it for imperial machinations, not to resist or challenge imperial power but actually to assert imperial authority in the case of Constantine to sort of, remake Christian aspects of Jerusalem, to set up a new sort of settler colonial situation in Jerusalem?

Obviously for our modern situation, what becomes most pressing are the modern uses of Revelation and as someone who teaches in the Americas, as a child of the Americas, the modern situation is what matters the most because Columbus interprets the New World by seeing himself as a prophet in line with John of Patmos believing that he’s been led to the New Earth from the Book of Revelation and uses the Book of Revelation really as a justification for what becomes a legacy of hundreds of years of imperialism and settler colonialism, not just in the Americas, but then later and around the world with Europe.

  • Jacqueline Hidalgo is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán (Palgrave 2016) and Latina/o Studies and Biblical Studies in Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation (2020).