History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

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9 Responses to “History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil”

  1. Brennan Breed Says:

    I think this is really insightful. I’m writing on the reception history of Daniel at the moment, and I’ll be tackling the role of Daniel in the development of angelology, the antichrist, the last world emperor and so on in a few weeks. Is the stuff you mention above published anywhere yet?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve posted a PDF of my talk here, but it is avowedly not a work of great scholarly rigor. Much of this is still in the idea phase, and I hope to write up a good chunk this summer, once I finish teaching the course.

  3. Brennan Breed Says:

    Well, I think you’re on to something about Antiochus, if that matters. The relationships between Isaiah 14 and Daniel 7 may be of interest to you in this regard, which you probably have already noticed, which combined with Daniel 10-12 makes this quite an interesting development.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I hadn’t noticed — thanks for the tip. Perhaps the devil project will be what finally forces me to grapple with Hebrew, instead of a way to procrastinate from it.

  5. Thom Says:

    These are some excellent insights, Adam. Thank you for blogging about this and for sharing your paper.

  6. Eilif Verney-Elliott Says:

    Interesting analysis: The idea of felix culpa here reminds me of the later Hegelian summersaults to sublate the negative – after ‘lingering with it’ – by pressing it all into the idea(l) of the movement of god within a system that ‘is’ god and ‘is’ god’s will. The movement of the Holy Spirit seems to become more important in contemporary understandings of Biblical exegesis, as the former, ‘old testaments’ relied on these demigod revelations – these almost ‘insular’ Spirits of God – here we have Elijah going off with aliens in what is clearly a space craft, etc. Then Christ came (from ‘god’ or ‘himself’ it varies) and the Spirit became flesh – Hegel and Marx have a similar relationship.

  7. Eilif Verney-Elliott Says:

    And so perhaps the concretisations really took place, or ‘grip’ within the Christian consciousness, and the West, this idea of the Devil par excellence after the Council of Nicaea 325 ad????? What do you think?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m having a really hard time understanding what you’re saying.


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