The Glory of the Lord

In the devil class, we noted out a strange feature of the New Jerusalem as portrayed in Revelation: the kings of all nations come to pay tribute there. It seems that we are to envision the continued existence of the system of “the nations” in the Kingdom of God — and that God’s glory somehow requires glorification, not just in general as Agamben points out, but specifically from the rulers of this world. This trope has deep roots in the prophetic expansion of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, an expansion that made YHWH an actor on the world stage. Even when God is using a pagan ruler as a mere tool, the glory of that ruler seems to contribute to God’s prestige — all the moreso when God ultimately rejects and punishes that ruler, showing himself to be the true sovereign.

It is in this context that we must understand Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. This might seem surprising, because in many ways the text renders the Last Judgment an awkward afterthought, instead emphasizing very this-worldly concerns — Christ’s victory over idols, over pagan oracles, over the fear of death, over sensuality, over violence…. These strangely “empirical” proofs of the reality of the resurrection take priority over Athanasius’s metaphysical musings about the corruptibility of the flesh, and indeed, one almost gets the impression that God sets himself a hard problem (how to fix human corruption while nonetheless remaining true to his word that humans must suffer death for their disobedience?) so that it will be all the more awesome when he solves it. At every step, Athanasius emphasizes that God in Christ is as strong as possible, as glorious as possible, an insistence that is all the more striking when he tries to “spin” his death on the cross as the greatest possibly glory rather than as a mark of the deepest shame.

The text was most likely written before Constantine’s conversion, but it seems that such an event is a logical outgrowth of the general scheme Athanasius lays out — after all, what could be more glorious than for the ruler of the unprecedentedly large and powerful Roman empire to testify to Christ’s divinity and victory? The development of Christianity into an imperial religion was not the only way it could have played out, perhaps, but it was also not arbitrary. Desire for recognition on the world political scene is built into the apocalyptic paradigm within which Christian theology traces its idiosyncratic path.

6 thoughts on “The Glory of the Lord

  1. I think Daniel, again, is crucial here, because the diasporic notion that the ideal outcome of Jews working in the court of a foreign king is for that king to recognize YHWH’s universal power (this is at issue in all of the court tales in Daniel 1-6, really culminating in Nebuchadnezzar’s assertion of YHWH’s sovereignty in chapter 4, and then the negative example of Belshazzar in chapter 5). This response to exile — saying that YHWH is really still sovereign despite appearances to the contrary — informs the first couple of verses in Daniel (where YHWH gives the temple to Nebuchadnezzar) and also the messianic Cyrus imagery. But then the shift to apocalyptic in Daniel radicalizes this message of sovereignty — so that the utopian imagery in Isaiah 2 (and elsewhere in Isaiah) of all people coming to Zion to offer gifts and learn the Torah melds with the imagery of foreign kings recognizing YHWH’s sovereignty or being deposed. So then you get Daniel 7-12, where the refusal of the foreign king to recognize YHWH’s rule requires radical divine intervention. So, on the other side of that intervention, it makes sense to have all the kings offering tribute, since that was the problem in the first place. At least that’s my take on it. But it’s also interesting to think of this in light of imperial propaganda from both the ancient Near East (the seven bows in Egypt, representing the leaders of the various nations, who are depicted bringing tribute and even placed on the soles of Pharaoh’s shoes and footstool so they get symbolically trampled) and the Persian Apadana reliefs at Persepolis, which depict in oddly anthropologically correct detail the various nations ruled by the Persian empire bringing tribute to the Persian King all at the same time. Then there’s the Roman imperial imagery of the Julio-Claudians, which symbolically represents the cosmos and all the nations within it as contributing to the cornucopia of empire — like the sebasteion at Aphrodisias, or even the curiass of Augustus in the Primaporta sculpture. I think this is a really fascinating topic.

  2. Yes, I agree that Daniel is incredibly crucial. I’m not sure where I got this, but I’d always thought of Daniel as relatively marginal in the context of the entire HB — but it is increasingly clear to me that it’s a genuine world-historical turning-point.

  3. Thanks for those archeological references, too — that’s very helpful. When we place the biblical imagery in that context, it seems much more understandable how Christians inheriting from the apocalyptic tradition would feel comfortable saying, “The empire is now good because it’s ours,” i.e., objecting to content (pagan loyalties) rather than to the form of domination as such.

  4. Yeah, Daniel’s reception history (what I’m working on at the moment) is pretty incredible. The four-kingdoms-and-then-a-fifth pattern (from chapters 2 and 7) is probably the most important time-structuring device ever. It was important for early Christians and Jews no matter where they lived because it helped them resist their oppressive overlords, and then when the Christians became the oppressive overlords, the notion of the conversion of Constantine made them re-read the schema (surprise!) in light of Daniel 1-6, in which the conversion of the foreign king was the whole point; so the fourth kingdom *became* the fifth when the good king converted, and it held off the end times. So in other words, the end couldn’t come yet because Rome hadn’t fallen, and everyone knew it was the fourth kingdom, etc. So then when Rome did fall, the schema changed again, and the Byzantines said they inherited the status of the fourth kingdom, while the other European powers argued that they had inherited it (this is where the idea of translatio imperii comes from — the end hadn’t come yet, so the Roman empire had to have been “translated” somewhere). This is why it was a big deal for Charlemagne to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800; he was inheriting this title. Then all of Charlemagne’s grandsons’ kingdoms (Germany, Italy, France, then later Spain) argued about who was the *real* inheritor of the fourth kingdom status; the English even claimed it. The Nuremburg Chronicle is entirely structured around tracing the lineage of the fourth kingdom (to their own backyard, of course). And then when Constantinople fell, the Russians said that they had inherited the fourth kingdom, started calling Moscow “third Rome,” and started calling their kings “Czars” (because they were the Caesars now). And in the midst of the lay investiture dispute, the church reformers (like Otto von Freising and Joachim de Fiore) started saying that the fourth empire had declined so much (drawing from the mixed clay/iron toes in Daniel 2) that the Pope had inherited the status of the fourth kingdom. And then, of course, early modern Europeans all claimed this for their own country, and then American theologians got in the act, too. I think it would be hard to say that any other text has so thoroughly impacted the concepts of sovereignty and eschatology — and especially the nexus of those two ideas.

  5. Ha — my project will be done in about a month, and I’ll be happy to share it once it’s in press. It will be published — hopefully — in late November.

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