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Apocalypse and Difference: Rereading Cultural Boundaries in Early Christian Texts


The dissertation that follows pursues two complementary tracks: (1) a cultural critique of scholarship on earliest Christianity and (2) an original contribution regarding the social function of apocalyptic discourse in our earliest Christ-confessing texts. I situate early Christian scholarship as it relates to apocalyptic discourse and anti-imperialism. My thesis is that such scholarship is bound by return-to-origins strategies that make early Christ-groups exceptional from their social and cultural environments. These strategies provide avenues for progressive Christian scholars to legitimate their modern ideological perspectives. This dissertation provides insight into such operations in the field of apocalyptic discourse that has scarcely been explored and previously only in a sporadic manner. I use this occasion to argue that such operations belie the social complexities of early Christ-groups. I argue, then, that essentialist strategies to promote early Christian exceptionalism work to mask how embedded early Christ-confessing authors were within their ancient Mediterranean settings. I have targeted apocalyptic discourse because such discourse appears to suggest a starker, apparently more “sectarian” contrast between insiders and outsiders than potentially any other. It is even in the midst of such dualistic discourse that we see early Christ-confessing authors fully participating within their social world.

I dedicate two chapters to unpacking our scholarly operations and another two chapters “zooming in” on two very different “case studies” in which such operations introduce challenges to our academic knowledge of Christian origins. In Chapter 1, I lay the groundwork for my critique of scholarly maneuvers vis-�-vis essentialist return-to-origins narratives and early Christian exceptionalism. I then turn my attention to “empire” and apocalyptic discourse in particular in Chapter 2. My third chapter targets issues of identity and empire that capture scholarly attention on First Thessalonians, while my fourth chapter underscores how Revelation scholars have reframed the apocalypse to fit anti-imperial paradigms and absolve the document’s disturbing elements. What these case studies and theoretical interventions demonstrate is that we must honestly accept the complexity of the earliest Christ-confessing texts. As historians, we must not simply bolster their subversiveness in hopes of authorizing our modern progressive ideologies, no matter how fundamental are our contemporary fights.

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